When I read The Unbroken by C.L. Clark, I just had to lay down for a whole day and think about just how much I loved it. Actually, I loved it so much that I wanted to interview them. Yes, it has been confirmed. I do, in fact, have major publishing brain.
Sapphics, anti-colonialism, complicated relationships, and such visual descriptions. It’s one of those books that’s just easy to sink into.
Enjoy the interview, and please pick up The Unbroken!
The Unbroken by C.L. Clark
“A perfect military fantasy: brutal, complex, human and impossible to put down.” – Tasha Suri, author of Empire of Sand
In an epic fantasy unlike any other, two women clash in a world full of rebellion, espionage, and military might on the far outreaches of a crumbling desert empire.
Touraine is a soldier. Stolen as a child and raised to kill and die for the empire, her only loyalty is to her fellow conscripts. But now, her company has been sent back to her homeland to stop a rebellion, and the ties of blood may be stronger than she thought.
Luca needs a turncoat. Someone desperate enough to tiptoe the bayonet’s edge between treason and orders. Someone who can sway the rebels toward peace, while Luca focuses on what really matters: getting her uncle off her throne. Through assassinations and massacres, in bedrooms and war rooms, Touraine and Luca will haggle over the price of a nation. But some things aren’t for sale.
Hi Cherae. Congrats on the release of The Unbroken. Tell us three things about your book.
Thank you! Let’s see…there are animal companions…I listened a lot to the Prince of Egypt soundtrack while I wrote it…it took a very very long time to get it to this point.
The way you describe things is so interesting. The way you describe a character’s movement pops when I read it. The way you describe coffee or Cantic’s jacket flapping in the night wind. It’s so visual, and I can tell you’re very careful to balance things. What are you thinking about when setting the scene or describing a character?
Haha, thank you so much. A lot of things go through my head, honestly–sometimes it’s about creating resonance with character details. Sometimes it’s about foreshadowing things I know I want to happen later. And sometimes……it’s about backfilling things that my second readers say wasn’t filled in enough. I have a bad tendency to under-describe setting even several drafts in.
Fantasy with an anti-colonial plot is nothing new to the genre, but I’ve only started to see a more significant increase in them than I’ve seen in the past. What did you want to add to the genre?
Actually, I would differ with that just a little…I think rebellion plots are not new, but explicitly, realistically anti-colonial, diving into the minds of colonized characters…and in epic fantasy…that feels a bit newer and so I would say that’s part of what I wanted. (Newer being relative, of course; several years is a short time frame in literary terms.) To take the rebellion narratives a bit further, to go a bit deeper. To take that glorious empire and show readers how much it resembles our world, how its noble princess thinks like so many of us…I wanted that. It’s interesting also how gay this particular niche is, and I’m enjoying that very much.
The Unbroken has such a close intimacy to it. All the emotions, the tense confrontations, and betrayals feel so personal. The way that Touraine has such hope in Balladaire’s justice system makes it an uncomfortable novel. Why did you decide on this narrative choice?
I think it should be personal and even uncomfortable–how a person deals with being colonized is personal and deeply uncomfortable, if they’re actually aware of it. I don’t think it’s too different from most mainstream fantasy novels in that way…it’s a tradition of high personal stakes amidst something bigger. I did make the deliberate choice not to distract the reader from the tight story of Qazal with some other, bigger bad evil that forces Balladaire and Qazal to unite and fight together for the good of the world, though. That’s not the story I wanted to tell, and at the moment, as we can see, the colonial powers of the real world won’t band together to save other places even if their own lives depend on it. Ahem. I shouldn’t get ahead of myself…there is a second and third book to contend with…heh.
The Unbroken is very clearly majorly inspired by North African politics and history. What about North African politics and its differing histories and cultural groups made you want to write an entire fantasy?
It was a turning point for me, studying Francophone African literature and postcolonial literary theory. I couldn’t help turning that lens onto my own reading–and if we argue so often that fantasy and science fiction is as much “real literature” as anything else, it can be critiqued and examined as such–and many authors have turned to this. But that’s just how my lightbulb went off. And then I was looking at all these fantasy books with thinly veiled European countries, including France–always the heroes, the main characters. So I wanted to flip that.
I love the idea of the magic system. Would you talk about what you wanted for the magic system and its inspirations?
Hahaha, to be honest, I feel like I’m not great at building magic systems. At least, the nitty-gritty of them. So as I was trying to figure out how this would work, like what cost the magic would exact, what I would least want to do if I had magic, and that’s how we got some of the bloodier bits. As for the overall inspirations…I was really interested in how magic would have inspired the technology of the different nations and how they would then engage in commerce with other nations–if someone was good at healing and knew a lot about medicine and the human body, but had a hard time growing large crops, for example…a prime place for a little cultural exchange. Trouble is when someone wants more than someone else is willing to give…
Luca and Touraine don’t fit into expectations, and there are many scenes where it’s incredibly uncomfortable to read even though it makes for a good read. What did you want to do with Luca and Touraine, and what was the process with that?
I wanted to lean into that discomfort and make the readers think about it. What it means to be in a situation that could potentially be proper enemies to lovers, and to ask what it would take to do that. What would the characters have to give up of themselves. It was a lot of trial and error, to get that balance where I wanted it.
I’m particularly interested in the in-between relationship she has with Cantic and Jaghotai. What did you want to do with parental figures (toxic or not) and lost love?
Mmmm…any answer to this would be reductive, so I’d rather let readers see what they get from it. I will say, though, that along with Aranen and Djasha, Touraine has all of these older women, powerful and admirable in their own ways, to choose as examples as she figures out who she wants to be.
If Touraine could go on a date with another character from one of your favorite books who would they be? Gay disasters are very welcome.
I think she would, unfortunately, be very into Baru. -_- Glutton for punishment, that one. She has a type, though. I wonder if she could be steered instead toward someone like Mahit from A Memory Called Empire…hmm…
Last question. If you could give your book to anyone in the world, dead or alive, who would it be?
Ohhh. James Baldwin or Octavia Butler. Just because. But I do keep hoping my favorite digital running coach, Coach Bennett from Nike Run Club, will pick it up.
Thank you to C.L. Clark for talking about The Unbroken, which is out now from Orbit Books.
About C.L. Clark
Cherae graduated from Indiana University’s creative writing MFA and was a 2012 Lambda Literary Fellow. She’s been a personal trainer, an English teacher, and an editor, and is some combination thereof as she travels the world. When she’s not writing or working, she’s learning languages, doing P90something, or reading about war and [post-]colonial history. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in FIYAH, PodCastle, Uncanny and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Now she’s one of the co-editors at PodCastle. She’s represented by Mary C. Moore of Kimberley Cameron and Associates.