Broken Jewel is a tightly constructed wartime thriller awkwardly crossed with an overwrought wartime romance. Often, these tastes go well together, but in Broken Jewel, the romance feels so perfunctory that it weighs down the rest of the work. The novel also suffers from having a cast of literal thousands, with too few characters existing as more than quickly sketched types.
In some regards, author David L. Robbins is constrained by history. His central story is that of the liberation of a camp of civilians detained by the Japanese in World War II Philippines. Since there were 2,100 people in that camp and Robbins is trying to at least pay lip service to following what actually happened in the rescue, many characters are solely defined by their nationality or one physical trait. This causes way too much of the supporting cast to blend together.
Robbins is good at the war intrigue, nicely building tense little action sequences where the characters risk everything to escape the camp and get messages to the soldiers and guerillas working on their liberation outside, and he’s never met a piece of military equipment he couldn’t describe for several paragraphs. But when the rescue attempt finally arrives after pages of buildup, it ends up feeling curiously rushed and uninvolving, perhaps because Robbins often doubles back to portray the same events through the eyes of several of his characters.
His four point-of-view characters, though better defined than the many supporting players, end up being such rote types that the romance between two of them (a woman sexually abused by the Japanese who hangs on to her heart of gold, and a 19-year-old yearning to break free of his father’s control) never feels completely believable, even though Robbins devotes so much of his page count to it. The two characters are enamored of each other when the novel starts, and few internal conflicts threaten that. Sure, both could die in the rescue operation, but Robbins spends so much time trying to make their pairing psychologically plausible that it ends up feeling disappointing that their love is treated as an essential fact of the universe.
Strangely, then, the novel’s most intriguing character ends up being its most implausible, though Robbins’ copious end notes offer up historic analogues for most of the characters, so maybe someone like this really did exist. Japanese interpreter Kenji slowly realizes that his army, having slowly been forced to cope with the fact that it will lose the war, is descending into base anarchy and great evils that feel almost petty. (Robbins’ portrayal of how massacres could occur simply because a nation’s psyche was bruised is one of the novel’s best points.) He’s also in love with Carmen—the female half of the central romance—and trying to protect her from the things he knows are coming.
Robbins’ portrayals of the Japanese (evil, evil, EVIL!!) and Americans (Boy Scout do-gooders) are so un-nuanced, and the characters within the camp such predictable types, that Kenji and his internal pain—expressed entirely via other characters’ perceptions of him, no less—feels like it’s dropped in from some other, far more interesting novel. Maybe now that this book is done, Robbins will build another novel from the Japanese point of view around Kenji, Letters From Iwo Jima style. Hopefully, that book would be more cohesive than this collection of intriguing bits and pieces.