The Unbroken by C.L. Clark
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.
Trigger Warnings: blood, violence, colonial violence (sexual harassment, slavery, slurs, white supremacy, unethical work labor, violence, murder, imprisonment), loss of a loved one.
Orbit Books sent me a copy for review. This does not change my opinion of the book.
C.L. Clark unrolls onto the red carpet version of the book world with a gastronomic anti-colonialist fantasy. In The Unbroken, they achieve what most authors writing a non-western inspired fantasy can’t. A complex tale, with deep bruises and brightness in every character and every corner of the page. One that reaches far into the mind and into a person’s heart, with depth built so far that I could not even want a less complicated or nuanced world than the one I have read in The Unbroken.
We’re catapulted into a terrible and beautiful world inspired by French colonized North Africa. Touraine is a soldier, trained and molded by the Balladairan empire she was stolen from her mother, and from Qazāl, as a child. Years later, she and her fellow soldiers arrive in Qazāl on a mission. They are sent to crush the rising tensions in Qazāl, a rebellion is brewing and about to pop off.
Accused of betraying the empire, the calculating and cool princess of Balladaire, Luca, saves Touraine’s life and enfolds her into a plot. In a hunt to save her people and claim her throne from her tyrannical uncle, Luca hopes to find magic and peace amongst the war and brutality in Qazāl. However, Touraine is her tool, a go between the empire and the rebels. Within the Qazāli neighborhoods are the rebels, where Touraine meets, drinks coffee, and chats with her own people, among them healers and a sharp tongued woman called The Jackal.
Frequently, due to the Fantasy genre’s over-reliance on English inspired epic fantasy people lean on that colonial inspiration but Clark’s main gaze lies elsewhere, in a world inspired by France’s colonization of North African countries, such as Algeria. Inspirations in fantasy aren’t always summed up to one place or time. R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War is inspired by ancient China and yet she picks from modern Chinese history. Colonial history is wide, and often a related experience between the reaches of colonial powers. But going into any fantasy inspired by colonialism, there’s always that reminder that it is fantasy. It doesn’t have to be based on one inspiration or even stick to our own colonial realities. Clark is experimenting with the pain of this earth and the possibilities of magic.
In The Unbroken there aren’t any easy answers. There is immense nuance Clark’s world, and to real countries reeling from colonialism, than what first meets the eye.
The most difficult part of reading this book is the way some characters experience the same realities, hopes, and lies people living in countries still healing from colonization experience. It’s the swallowing and changing of the mind. The perspective is so close and makes aspects of historical realities shine with such clarity. In fact, that’s what is so brilliant about fantasy writers like C.L. Clark.
For Touraine, she is fed off of hope by the empire. If she works her way up to the top of her military career, that would prove not only to Balladaire but to other Sands that Balladaire rewards loyalty with fairness. That is what she, and others, live off of. The hope to be treated like everyone else. It’s the self hatred that is so raw and brutal in The Unbroken.
But for her fellow Sands, it is not about wanting equality from Balladaire. One character, Tibeau, explains he doesn’t want their help or anything that comes with a collar. A reminder that Balladaire (or really any western nation of our own world) does not give its gifts without a price.
In Luca, we find privileges, frustrations, and a calculating mind just trying to find a way to prove to her empire that she doesn’t need to be able bodied to be a worthy ruler. Both wanting a way to prove themselves to Balladaire, a princess and a soldier without privileges of a citizen or a princess. Clark touches and then shatters through the naivety of colonial violence but also peace. The reason Luca’s interesting is the push between her and Touraine. She’s not above the more violent colonizers but within it, a part of it. She’s both dangerous, kind, and not someone easily summed up or pinned down.
That’s risky and brave, and it’s the type of story I don’t often get to read. One that stares right into your face.
Clark is doing something with Luca and Touraine’s relationship beyond romance. But I don’t think it appropriate to go into this thinking ‘sapphic romance’ when it’s really not prominent enough to be labeled as romantic, which isn’t to say that it won’t lead to one. A majority of their relationship is political and developing in a way that I would not label it ‘romance.’ There’s a privilege and power pull between the two of them. There’s a mysterious air that I sense Clark doing with them and I’m very curious to see where Clark is taking us.
What makes Clark’s writing stand out really comes down to their character building, and such perfectly written descriptions. I can sense their confidence in a scene just by the way they zoom into a scene and create just the right mood and tone with a descriptor or a body movement.
Cantic remains one of the most interesting characters, and yet she’s an utter monster. A parental/authority figure to Touraine, a general, and all around a severe bitch. God I hate her but she’s interesting. Although I loved reading about her, I made a ‘ways to torture Cantic list’. She’s like a dangerous object that you really do not want to touch but you just think it’s so fascinating. All those jagged edges. Reading a scene in The Unbroken is much like watching something out of a film. I can picture Clark going over word over word just to find the perfect description.
How much I love the writing in this book is beyond explanation. The descriptions are so good! Simplifying a description does wonders for this book, as it allows me to truly see a scene on a level that an overabundance of descriptions cannot. A Balladairan man described as having a spring in his step, coffee likened to the churning by boots on the march, or the curling of a general’s hands. The visual of Cantic’s coat flapping in the night air. There’s such a freshness to Clark’s writing.
The Unbroken is like being hugged by some knives, very beautiful and sharp knives. C.L. Clark is a new favorite author of mine. Highly recommended.