The Unbroken by C.L. Clark is a North-African inspired fantasy novel featuring an in-depth analysis of colonialism and rebellion in a compelling, easily understandable way. Also, sapphics! I was certain I’d love this book, but I was blown away by just how brilliant it is. I buddy read this with Laura over on Twitter, and it was great to have someone to chat chat with because, oh boy, it goes deep.
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.
This book follows two perspectives: Touraine and Luca. Touraine was taken away from her homeland by the colonial Belladaire when she was a young child. She can’t speak the language, and she doesn’t have any memories of her home. Despite growing up in Belladaire and having a military education, she’s still thought of as a second-class citizen. The military has arrived in Qazāl to squash a brewing rebellion, and Touraine is drawn into its heart. In contrast, Luca is the Princess and future Queen of Belladaire. She’s desperate to prove herself, as she’ll be unlikely to rise and take control of the empire if she doesn’t succeed in her mission to stop the rebellion. She’s shocked by the violence the Qazāli people face at the hands of the colonialist Belladaire, but her desire for power keeps her hands tied. When Luca has the opportunity to bring Touraine in as an envoy between the two groups, the fate of the country will change forever.
The analysis of colonisation and how strongly that tied into the setting and character arcs was pure brilliance. The Unbroken delves into all the little heartbreaking details involved in rebelling against a colonial force. Touraine struggles with where she belongs. She’ll always be seen as too barbaric for Belladaire to accept her. The violence and racism she faces from her commanding officers are intense. They treat her like an animal, discussing the best way to train and discipline her people. At the same time, the rebellion doesn’t feel like home either. She can’t speak the language of her homeland, she’s treated with constant suspicion, and viewed as another colonial force. She was my favourite character purely because of these internal conflicts and nuance; it was painful to read about. All I want in life is for Touraine to be happy. Luca tries to appease the rebels, offering free education to the Qazāli children. The rebels refuse. The education Belladaire thinks is high quality is just another form of taking their children away and turning them into tools for the Empire. Luca is a sympathetic character, and you can see why she thinks these offers would be helpful. At the same time, you’re just screaming ‘get out of here and never come back’ alongside the rebels.
One aspect of The Unbroken I thought was especially interesting is that Belladaire is non-religious. Religion is viewed as primitive and illogical and is outlawed in much of the Empire. In our world’s history, Christianity has often been tied to colonial forces. It was forced upon people as the ‘true’ religion, and every other belief was demonized. In the world C.L. Clark has created you can see these arguments being echoed, but it’s exemplified through this contrasting religious vs non-religious dynamic. This is also where the magic of the world comes in. The Qazāli have magic that’s heavily linked to their faith, while the Belladaire either deny magic’s existence or squash it down at any opportunity. I’m especially interested in one of the reveals regarding Belladaire and how that’ll come into play later in the series. Luca wants to understand this magic. She doesn’t dismiss it like most of her people do, nor does she dismiss the idea of religion. The book uses this as a way to explore how colonisers will cherry-pick aspects of a culture that they find useful or interesting while simultaneously oppressing and destroying it.
If you love political intrigue, this book will be an exciting read for you. The level of tactical play and political manoeuvring on behalf of Belladaire and the rebellion is incredible. C.L. Clark never loses sight of the impact this violent rebellion will have on the people of the city. Everyone is impacted, tensions rise and fall, violence breaks out, ordinary people die, lose their homes, lose their resources. The world feels vibrant and alive. Actions always have consequences. In one moment, Luca gives the population extra food to disrupt the influence of the rebels. In another, the rebels use tactics that wipe out the army while putting their people in harm’s way. The Unbroken leaves you on the edge of your seat as the power of each side grows and falls with every decision they make, every ally they forge, every enemy they create.
Luca and Touraine have an especially interesting relationship. Touraine is given more freedom and power at Luca’s side than she’s ever had, but she’s aware that everything is conditional. The power dynamics and complexity of their relationship is always at the forefront. Touraine will never be equal to the Princess of Belladaire. Luca will never understand how Touraine is being torn in two by her divergent allegiances. I can’t wait to see how this will continue because they’re such an interesting pair, although I’m not sure if I could ever see them as happily together due to their fraught history.
I’m sure you can tell from this review that I have lots of thoughts and feelings around this book. I could say a lot more, but this review is already a lot longer than usual. The Unbroken is a fantastic beginning to a trilogy that promises to bring something new and impactful to fantasy. The tactical depth, the strength of the themes, the compelling characters, all of these features come together to make a truly fantastic read. I’d highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys political fantasy; you’re in for a treat.
Also, yes, I know I titled this review after something I haven’t spoken about yet. Look at the cover and tell me Touraine doesn’t deserve that arm appreciation.
CW: rape mention, graphic violence, death, racism, colonialism, torture.
(Thanks to Netgalley and Little, Brown Group UK for providing an advance readers copy in exchange for an honest review)
About The Author
I usually write fantasy and science fiction. If you like: cities under occupation, anti-colonial magic, colonial linguistics lite, fire, and queer folks, I’ve got stories for you. You can check them out here.
I’m also working on a flintlock fantasy novel that was a finalist in the Speculative Literature Foundation’s Diverse Worlds/Writers contest. A juror called it “a densely plotted thriller with genuine stakes…a great hook…a depiction of colonialism that’s so insidious…. I love the sense of consequences, large and small, and the complexity of the characters.”
My agent is Mary C. Moore, at Kimberley Cameron and Associates.
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The Unbroken is out on the 23rd of March! There’s never been a better time to pre-order a copy!
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