At its core, this book offers a fairly standard and occasionally interesting fantasy novel. Carr develops a world in which a large, wealthy, 'civilizeAt its core, this book offers a fairly standard and occasionally interesting fantasy novel. Carr develops a world in which a large, wealthy, 'civilized' city exists in dialectical relationship with its generations of physically impure outcasts, who reside in the surrounding forest. Sympathetic characters from both sides move towards a crisis point, at which the 'villain' becomes apparent, the two sides unite, and then move to rectify societal problems. As a fantasy novel, it has some strengths - the characters are well drawn, if not particularly deep or round. The world setup is also moderately interesting.
It is the framing device that Carr imposes on this outline of a story that spoils it for me. Broken (the city, and its large 'kingdom') does not reside in a generic fantasy world, it is meant to reside in 8th-century Thuringia. Carr takes the familiar trope of the 'lost manuscript' and presents his tale as if Edward Gibbon discovered a lost manuscript (the text of the novel) that is the only remaining witness to the existence of Broken and the events of the novel (Carr adopts Gibbon's voice in some interlude chapters, as well as the voice of Edmund Burke, whom Carr sees as the dampening force that prevented Gibbon from publishing the Broken manuscript)l. In other words, since he seems to think we know nothing about 8th-century SW Germany (or, Francia), he believes it plausible to postulate the existence of a large city modeled after Rome, with a complex, highly differentiated economic and social system in that 'empty space', located in the middle of the German wildness'. And yet we DO know about this part of the world at the time, and what we do know makes the existence of such an entity as Broken a ludicrous proposition. Are we really expected to imagine that some Roman emigre (Oxontrot, the alleged founder of Broken) could create a sophisticated, large, stone city with a standing army, formal merchant guilds, and a dominant Egyptian-style priestly caste within a handful of generations and have that entity remain completely unknown to, say Constantinople? What is more, there are reasons why such complex societies did not exist in 8th-century northern Europe, none of which Carr addresses in the least. The setting is utterly implausible.
But, we might respond, all is fair in fantasy - right? Of course. And yet Carr does not want this to be fantasy. He wants it to be alternate or lost history. To be successful in such an endeavor the alternate or lost history has to be plausible and to respect the mentalite of the time and its inhabitants. "The Legend of Broken" does neither. The attitudes, social structures, and economic structures of Broken are those of Rome, not an 8th-century Northern European community. In addition, the outlook of the characters from Broken is not even truly Roman, but rather some poor mishmash of Roman military organization with 12th- or 13th-century style 'noble conduct' (habitus). Carr has taken pains to concoct numerous false etymologies, working backwards from modern German or forward from latin or other ancient languages to create what pseudo-Gibbon's notes call 'the Broken' dialect. All well and good, again, if it weren't for the fact that these allegedly 'untranslatable' words sit side-by-side in the text with concepts and words that are only comprehensible to a post-Enlightenment audience. So, one wonders, why bother to declare some terms found in the Broken manuscript untranslatable, and thus open to use of these clever false etymologies, but (within the logic of the lost manuscript) decide to translate other concepts into idiomatic modern English? I can think of only two explanations: 1) Carr really doesn't understand the middle ages, for all of the apparent gravitas of his framing device, or 2) he is clouded by his own linguistic cleverness. It is really jarring. I should also add that the style of the novel, which (again) purports to be a translation by Gibbon of a medieval manuscript reads nothing like any medieval (or even Roman) narrative that I've ever read. Here, of course, Carr the novelist faced a dilemma: there is a reason why translations of Orderic Vitalis or Wipo of Corvey are not best-sellers, and works written as fantasy fiction are. He tries to have his cake and eat it too, and the result is a jumble of styles that are at once pretentious, annoying (the use of present tense), and overblown.
I have been trying to decide if my pique with this novel is based solely on the framing device. Much of it is, I confess. I wonder whether a straight fantasy novel without all the hubristic attempts to sell this as a 'lost history' might have worked better for me. It might well have. But that is not what he has written. Despite my willingness to finish the story, I see the Legend of Broken as something that should have remained lost....more
This massively detailed book tells the story of the American involvement in the western front during WWII from D-Day to the end of the European war inThis massively detailed book tells the story of the American involvement in the western front during WWII from D-Day to the end of the European war in May 1945. Atkinson has performed prodigious amounts of research, much of which appears in the book. The depth of research is not merely outstanding, it is (perhaps paradoxically) not all that off-putting, as Atkinson has a gift for weaving his penchant for (particularly) quantitative 'factoids' into the main narrative in such a way that the reader is not overwhelmed. To my eyes, though, the real strength of Atkinson's work lies in the character studies he offers throughout the book, both at the top (with EIsenhower, Bradley and Montgomery receiving the most attention) and further down the chain of command (Audie Murphy makes several appearances, with numerous other generals, colonels and other officers receiving the Atkinson study). Those sections add much needed humanity to the titanic struggles that Atkinson describes. While I appreciate all of Atkinson's work, and read the book with gusto, two features did rub me the wrong way. The first was his relentless focus on enormous figures, and not merely casualties, but supplies - X-million pounds of Y, X thousand boxes of tents, etc. I realize that one of the themes of the work (and the war) is exactly its titanic nature, something that must be measured to be properly understood, but Atkinson has a particular love for these huge numbers, and eventually their size starts to feel impossible to truly measure. The second feature that rubbed me a bit raw was, to my memory, the increasing turn towards purplish prose and bathos in this volume of his trilogy. It is as if the award of the Pulitzer made Atkinson decide that Pulitzer writing required the use of obscure words, colorful phrases, and ancient idioms. I'd have to go back and reread vol. 1 to fully compare his style, but I don't remember the first book as containing this degree of excessive prose styling. Still, these are small quibbles on what is a solid achievement. I'd rate this 3.5 stars if I could. ...more