The Unbroken

by C.L. Clark

Cover image

Series: Magic of the Lost #1
Publisher: Orbit
Copyright: March 2021
ISBN: 0-316-54267-9
Format: Kindle
Pages: 490

Buy at Powell's Books

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 think.

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 a 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 over-long.

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 expect 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

Reviewed: 2022-12-11

Last spun 2022-12-17 from thread modified 2022-12-14