Publisher: Orbit Books
Publish Date: 25 March 2021
Page Count: 528 pages
Sky above and earth below, The Unbroken was tense!
Full disclosure: this novel didn’t make it to my top 10 anticipated books of 2021. I’m a big fan of military sci-fi, but when it comes to military or politically-focused fantasy my eyes can glaze over a little. I tend to need that extra hook to capture my interest in the plot (I’m thinking of Game of Thrones and how I mostly wanted to hear about the dragons, gods and magic… I’m a simple guy 🤷♂️).
But I’m glad I paid attention to the hype surrounding The Unbroken by C. L. Clark and requested a copy from Netgalley. It’s significantly more character-focused and personal than I had anticipated, and the North African-inspired, queernormative setting is vital and exciting. Plus, there’s gods and magic (but no dragons).
According to her author bio, Clark has a keen interest in post-colonial history, and this really shows in her writing. She has conceived engaging characters whose unique experiences serve to explore the complex fallout of colonialism from contrasting–but not necessarily polarised–points of view. This alone makes The Unbroken a worthy edition to fantasy shelves already packed with tales of invasion.
The main character is Touraine, a Lieutenant in the Balladairan colonial brigade who was was separated from her family as a child to join the ranks of the invading Balladair military. Thought to be uncivilised and expendable by Balladairan soldiers, the colonial ‘Sands’ aren’t trusted to carry weapons outside of combat, yet they’re often given the most dangerous and gruelling missions.
Most recently, the Sands have been deployed to Touraine’s home country–now chief Balladairan colony–to help put down a Qazāli rebellion. Shortly after docking in the capital, Touraine anticipates a rebel attack and saves the Balladairan princess’ life. Taking notice of the ambitious lieutenant and her Qazāli heritage, Princess Luca Ancier draws Touraine into her plans to end the rebellion and prove herself worthy of the throne.
In the struggle to achieve their mutual goals, both women are forced to make difficult choices and discover just how much they’re willing to compromise their integrity and alliances.
Cleverly crafted characters and complex relationships really lifted this story for me. Unlike many of the southern soldiers who secretly pray to forbidden gods and hold on to the hope that they will one day return home, Touraine plans to use her time back in Qazāl to earn a promotion and prove to Balladairan society that the Sands are ‘civilised’. Even when a Qazāli rebel recognises her face as similar to her lost mother’s, she judges the rebels harshly and discourages any sympathy for their cause. Her reality is certainly challenged throughout the book as circumstances and relationships change, but it is not an easy journey for her.
Then there’s Luca who claims she has the people’s best interest at heart, yet believes in her father’s legacy which was to break the Shālan Empire and subjugate its people. Luca is not always likeable, but she’s a fantastic POV character. I enjoyed the insight into her strategies and motivations, which made it easier to understand her. Fantasy books sometimes portray royals as distant and cold, perhaps cracking a window into their inner moral struggle and vulnerability, but I liked this more intimate take.
‘Flawed characters’ is a favourite phrase used by us bloggers to describe books with emotional depth, but in The Unbroken I would simply describe them as angry. And justifiably so. There is not one relationship in this book that isn’t fraught with tension, often stemming from differing schools of thought. Yet almost all of the characters are relatable, and their decisions–good or bad–are usually understandable.
I loved the subtle use of magic in this novel, and how it is so closely tied with Shālan identity and beliefs; it’s the one thing that Balladair can’t take away from them, and like the hope that the rebels hold on to, it’s a powerful thing. I would like to have understood the magic a little more by the end of the book but I’m confident Clark will build on this in the next instalment.
Perhaps the only reservation I had about the story was the romance. It didn’t feel quite believable, though I understand what the author was getting at, connecting two characters who are outsiders with feelings of inadequacy. I think this relationship would have been just as interesting, and perhaps more relatable, if it were a fragile friendship.
The Unbroken reflects its stunningly illustrated Tommy Arnold cover as a story about gritty characters determined to make their mark on the world.
Big thanks to Orbit and Netgalley for a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.
Trigger warnings: ableism, racism, self-harm, death of family, torture
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