bookish review

Review: The Unbroken, C.L. Clark

The Unbroken by C.L. Clark
eARC received from NetGalley and Orbit Books for review
464 pages, political fantasy

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.

Thank you Netgalley and Orbit books for this eARC! Physical copy featured in the header photo; I rushed out to grab it as soon as my local store had it in stock. This book has it all: an incredible cover, compelling and complex characters, and a fully-developed world that takes a loosely historical setting and weaves in a thread of magic.

The Unbroken takes place in a fantasy-adjacent version of North Africa during the period of French colonial rule – so think the Maghreb during the 1800s or first half of the 1900s, a region with a rich culture shaped by various African and Eurasian influences. Balladaire (based on imperial France) has several “southern colonies” in the region. Tensions are on the rise in their foremost colony, Qazāl, where rebel groups seek to agitate the general population against Balladairan rule.

The story begins with a bang: as the princess of Balladaire descends to the docks of El-Wast, a Qazāli coastal city, rebels use the chaos to make an attempt on her life. Their attempt is thwarted by a Qazāli-born colonial soldier, setting events into motion that will transform Qazāl and Balladaire.

The Unbroken alternates between two narrators. Touraine, a Lieutenant of the Balladairan Colonial Brigade, offers a unique point of view as both insider and outsider on each side of the conflict. Co-opted into the Balladairan military as a child, stripped of her family and birth-name, she nonetheless dreams of proving herself and moving up through the ranks, despite being viewed as a second-class subject by her Balladair-born superiors. She is Qazāli by birth, but the people of El-Wast alternately consider her a traitor, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, or a lost child who might help the rebellion but does not fully belong. Touraine’s loyalties are strained in every direction and there are no simple choices, but what she wants most is to protect her fellow conscripts, who are little more than pawns.

Luca, princess of Balladaire, provides an interesting counterpoint, as she’s privileged in some major ways but an outsider in others. A childhood injury left her with permanent damage to her legs, and while this limits her ability to prove her physical worth in a society that values military power, she has honed her intelligence to a knife-point. Luca arrives in Qazāl with a clear goal in mind: quell a rebellion, restore the status quo, and return to Balladaire having proven herself worthy to take her rightful place on the throne from her regent uncle. Luca is… complicated. She wants to excel, wants to be a good queen, but so much of her idea of being a good ruler is couched in colonial terms, where success means keeping Qazāl subservient to Balladaire’s benefit. She is sympathetic and alienating in turns.

This is the first fictional story I’ve read that blends post-colonial and anti-imperialist theory together with fantasy and queer elements in this way, and the result is phenomenal. Clark approaches every level of politics with nuance, from the personal to the highest echelons of military and empire, and no two characters feel the same way about any given issue – not just to be contrary or prove a point, but to show that there are no easy answers, no universal experiences. While there’s nuance, however, Clark cuts through the bullshit of colonial rhetoric to tackle the myths of dependency, “civilizing” an uncivilized land, and others.

That said, there’s a lot of slow-paced political maneuvering, especially in the first half of the book. Personal struggle is as – if not more – important as the broader conflict; we learn as much about a character from their logic in a game of chess, or the truths that come out of them in the heat of an argument, as we do in the middle of battle. That’s not to say there’s no action! This is the first novel in a planned series, though, and The Unbroken devotes a lot of time to building a solid understanding of its world and all the moving parts through these scenes of negotiation, so that the reader grasps the broader picture and what’s at stake without the need for heavy infodumping.

If you were drawn in by the promise of sapphic romance, Touraine and Luca have chemistry, mutual attraction, and a few moments of genuine tenderness behind closed doors – but this is not a “love conquers all differences” sort of story, or one that I’d classify as romance. The Unbroken reckons with the inherent power imbalance between Touraine and Luca and all of the uncomfortable truths that come with it, which I loved, because there’s so much that needs to be taken apart before these characters can truly come together in a satisfying way, if they ever do. A romance that handwaves these issues wouldn’t have fit the tone of the story. As it stands, Touraine and Luca walk a thin line between enemies and lovers, each forcing the other to question everything they think they know, and I’m excited to see how their relationship develops.

Luca and Touraine aren’t the only queer rep – this is a queernorm world with queer primary, supporting, and background characters. Touraine also has a complicated relationship with a fellow conscript, Pruett; two of my favourite supporting characters are wives; there’s a trans side character who will have a bigger role as the series progresses; there are several other examples of relationships between Balladairans and Qazālis and a few of them are queer as well.

The Unbroken is a complex, fascinating work of political fantasy and the opener for what promises to be a compelling series. I can’t wait to see what C.L. Clark has in store for the sequel.

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