Review: The Unbroken, by C.L. Clark
eagle at eyrie.org
Sun Dec 11 20:08:11 PST 2022
by C.L. Clark
Series: Magic of the Lost #1
Copyright: March 2021
The Unbroken is the first book of a projected fantasy trilogy. It is
C.L. Clark's first novel.
Lieutenant Touraine is one of the Sands, the derogatory name for the
Balladairan Colonial Brigade. She, like the others of her squad, are
conscript soldiers, kidnapped by the Balladairan Empire from their
colonies as children and beaten into "civilized" behavior by
Balladairan training. They fought in the Balladairan war against the
Taargens. Now, they've been reassigned to El-Wast, capital city of
Qazāl, the foremost of the southern colonies. The place where Touraine
was born, from which she was taken at the age of five.
Balladaire is not France and Qazāl is not Algeria, but the parallels
are obvious and strongly implied by the map and the climates.
Touraine and her squad are part of the forces accompanying Princess
Luca, the crown princess of the Balladairan Empire, who has been sent
to take charge of Qazāl and quell a rebellion. Luca's parents died in
the Withering, the latest round of a recurrent plague that haunts
Balladaire. She is the rightful heir, but her uncle rules as regent and
is reluctant to give her the throne. Qazāl is where she is to prove
herself. If she can bring the colony in line, she can prove that she's
ready to rule: her birthright and her destiny.
The Qazāli are uninterested in being part of Luca's grand plan of
personal accomplishment. She steps off her ship into an assassination
attempt, foiled by Touraine's sharp eyes and quick reactions, which
brings the Sand to the princess's attention. Touraine's reward is to be
assigned the execution of the captured rebels, one of whom recognizes
her and names her mother before he dies. This sets up the core of the
plot: Qazāli rebellion against an oppressive colonial empire, Luca's
attempt to use the colony as a political stepping stone, and Touraine
caught in between.
One of the reasons why I am happy to see increased diversity in SFF
authors is that the way we tell stories is shaped by our cultural
upbringing. I was taught to tell stories about colonialism and
rebellion in a specific ideological shape. It's hard to describe
briefly, but the core idea is that being under the rule of someone else
is unnatural as well as being an injustice. It's a deviation from the
way the world should work, something unexpected that is inherently
unstable. Once people unite to overthrow their oppressors, eventual
success is inevitable; it's not only right or moral, it's the natural
path of history. This is what you get when you try to peel the
supremacy part away from white supremacy but leave the unshakable
self-confidence and bedrock assumption that the universe cares what we
We were also taught that rebellion is primarily ideological. One may be
motivated by personal injustice, but the correct use of that injustice
is to subsume it into concepts such as freedom and democracy. Those
concepts are more "real" in some foundational sense, more central to
the right functioning of the world, than individual circumstance. When
the now-dominant group tells stories of long-ago revolution, there is
no personal experience of oppression and survival in which to ground
the story; instead, it's linked to anticipatory fear in the reader, to
the idea that one's privileges could be taken away by a foreign
oppressor and that the counter to this threat is ideological unity.
Obviously, not every white fantasy author uses this story shape, but
the tendency runs deep because we're taught it young. You can see it
everywhere in fantasy, from Lord of the Rings to Tigana. The Unbroken
uses a much different story shape, and I don't think it's a
coincidence that the author is Black.
Touraine is not sympathetic to the Qazāli. These are not her people and
this is not her life. She went through hell in Balladairan schools, but
she won a place, however tenuous. Her personal role model is General
Cantic, the Balladairan Blood General who was also one of her
instructors. Cantic is hard as nails, unforgiving, unbending, and
probably a war criminal, but also the embodiment of a military ethic.
She is tough but fair with the conscript soldiers. She doesn't put a
stop to their harassment by the regular Balladairan troops, but neither
does she let it go too far. Cantic has power, she knows how to keep it,
and there is a place for Touraine in Cantic's world.
And, critically, that place is not just hers: it's one she shares with
her squad. Touraine's primary loyalty is not to Balladaire or to Qazāl.
It's to the Sands. Her soldiers are neither one thing nor the other,
and they disagree vehemently among themselves about what Qazāl and
their other colonial homes should be to them, but they learned
together, fought together, and died together. That theme is woven
throughout The Unbroken: personal bonds, third and fourth loyalties,
and practical ethics of survival that complicate and contradict simple
dichotomies of oppressor and oppressed.
Touraine is repeatedly offered ideological motives that the protagonist
in the typical story shape would adopt. And she repeatedly rejects them
for personal bonds: trying to keep her people safe, in a world that is
not looking out for them.
The consequence is that this book tears Touraine apart. She tries to
walk an precarious path between Luca, the Qazāli, Cantic, and the
Sands, and she falls off that path a lot. Each time I thought I knew
where this book was going, there's another reversal, often brutal. I
tend to be a happily-ever-after reader who wants the protagonist to get
everything they need, so this isn't my normal fare. The amount of hell
that Touraine goes through made for difficult reading, worse because
much of it is due to her own mistakes or betrayals. But Clark makes
those decisions believable given the impossible position Touraine is in
and the lack of role models she has for making other choices. She's set
up to fail, and the price of small victories is to have no one
understand the decisions that she makes, or to believe her motives.
Luca is the other viewpoint character of the book (and yes, this is
also a love affair, which complicates both of their loyalties). She is
the heroine of a more typical genre fantasy novel: the outsider
princess with a physical disability and a razor-sharp mind, ambitious
but fair (at least in her own mind), with a trusted bodyguard advisor
who also knew her father and a sincere desire to be kinder and more
even-handed in her governance of the colony. All of this is real; Luca
is a protagonist, and the reader is not being set up to dislike her.
But compared to Touraine's grappling with identity, loyalty, and
ethics, Luca is never in any real danger, and her concerns start to
feel too calculated and superficial. It's hard to be seriously invested
in whether Luca proves herself or gets her throne when people are being
slaughtered and abused.
This, I think, is the best part of this book. Clark tells a traditional
ideological fantasy of learning to be a good ruler, but she puts it
alongside a much deeper and more complex story of multi-faceted
oppression. She has the two protagonists fall in love with each other
and challenges them to understand each other, and Luca does not come
off well in this comparison. Touraine is frustrated, impulsive,
physical, and sometimes has catastrophically poor judgment. Luca is
analytical and calculating, and in most ways understands the political
dynamics far better than Touraine. We know how this story usually goes:
Luca sees Touraine's brilliance and lifts her out of the ranks into a
role of importance and influence, which Touraine should reward with
loyalty. But Touraine's world is more real, more grounded, and more
authentic, and both Touraine and the reader know what Luca could offer
is contingent and comes with a higher price than Luca understands.
(Incidentally, the cover of The Unbroken, designed by Lauren Panepinto
with art by Tommy Arnold, is astonishingly good at capturing both
Touraine's character and the overall feeling of the book. Here's a
 larger version.)
The writing is good but uneven. Clark loves reversals, and they did
keep me reading, but I think there were too many of them. By the end of
the book, the escalation of betrayals and setbacks was more exhausting
than exciting, and I'd stopped trusting anything good would last.
(Admittedly, this is an accurate reflection of how Touraine felt.)
Touraine's inner monologue also gets a bit repetitive when she's
thrashing in the jaws of an emotional trap. I think some of this is
first-novel problems of over-explaining emotional states and character
reasoning, but these problems combine to make the book feel a bit
I'm also not in love with the ending. It's perhaps the one place in the
book where I am more cynical about the politics than Clark is, although
she does lay the groundwork for it.
But this book is also full of places small and large where it goes a
different direction than most fantasy and is better for it. I think my
favorite small moment is Touraine's quiet refusal to defend herself
against certain insinuations. This is such a beautiful bit of
characterization; she knows she won't be believed anyway, and refuses
to demean herself by trying.
I'm not sure I can recommend this book unconditionally, since I think
you have to be in the mood for it, but it's one of the most thoughtful
and nuanced looks at colonialism and rebellion I can remember seeing in
fantasy. I found it frustrating in places, but I'm also still thinking
about it. If you're looking for a political fantasy with teeth, you
could do a lot worse, although expected to come out the other side a
bit battered and bruised.
Followed by The Faithless, and I have no idea where Clark is going to
go with the second book. I suppose I'll have to read and find out.
Content note: In addition to a lot of violence, gore, and death,
including significant character death, there's also a major plague. If
you're not feeling up to reading about panic caused by contageous
illness, proceed with caution.
Rating: 7 out of 10
Russ Allbery (eagle at eyrie.org) <https://www.eyrie.org/~eagle/>
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