The Upshot: Complex characters and a compelling, anti-colonialist plot mark this stunning debut fantasy novel.
The Unbroken, by C.L. Clark Published March 23rd, 2021, by Orbit ARC Edition, 464 pages Finished Reading March 20th, 2021
Note: I received an Advance Review Copy (ARC) from NetGalley, courtesy of Macmillan-Tor/Forge, in exchange for an honest review.
The Unbroken, the stunning debut novel from C.L. Clark, follows two women on opposite sides of a long-simmering conflict as they navigate the colonized city of El-Wast. Touraine is a soldier, conscripted as a child by the empire of Balladaire after it conquered her homeland of Qazāl. She barely remembers its capital, El-Wast; doesn’t even remember her mother tongue. And yet the longer she stays, the deeper her connection. Will she fight for Balladaire, or a revolution that might set the city free?
Matters are complicated by Luca, would-be queen of Balladaire, whose uncle currently sits the throne until she is deemed fit to rule. She knows he will find any excuse to keep the throne from her. She wants to be a good queen, a queen for the people. But she also knows that if she doesn’t bring this revolution to heel, she will never get to the chance to rule. When Luca and Touraine cross paths, sparks fly – in more ways than one. They might each be just what the other needs – or they might send El-Wast spiraling into violence.
Touraine and Luca are complicated figures. Both have been compromised by colonialism, a system of oppression in which the colonizer attempts to simultaneously erase and absorb the Other, to eradicate the autonomy of the colonized while commodifying their culture. To the colonizer, this is all perfectly natural, and to the colonized, this can often be made to appear natural. In the beginning, Touraine, despite having been stolen from her family as a child, hangs Qazāli. She pulls the lever. She swings the sword.
Luca is an avatar of the colonial forces that seek to occupy El-Wast and subjugate its people. She believes she is good, that she can help them find a place in Balladairan society. She believes she can make peace with the protesters, can settle with the revolutionaries, while maintaining Balladaire’s hold on the city. Both Luca and Touraine believe they can chart a new path without sacrificing the beliefs they hold dearest.
The Unbroken is a book about fighting back against colonialism, but it’s also a book about complicated, tragically messy individuals doing what they believe is the right thing and seeing it blow up in their faces over and over again. Touraine and Luca are smart, stubborn, and totally at odds. The tender feelings that bloom between them can hardly compete with the huge ideological gulf that separates them. Every interaction is charged with what’s left unsaid, with what can’t be said without cracking the very foundations of empire.
If your reading experience is anything like mine, you will frequently find yourself yelling at these characters for their latest terrible decisions (especially Luca, good grief). They are the very definition of “disaster protagonist.” This can be frustrating, in the wrong hands, but every choice feels absolutely inevitable – a consequence of what Touraine and Luca believe, where they’re coming from, what they’re trying to achieve. In other words, Clark never once lapses into what I call “outline writing” – where characters do things just because the outline said they should. The choices are terrible, and motivated.
Another key strength of The Unbroken is El-Wast itself. The city is vividly realized, and the various factions that comprise its difficult, tenuous political situation are similarly well-drawn. Other characters, including and especially key members of the resistance, are strikingly memorable (including the prickly, violent Jackal, whose exact nature I won’t spoil – but trust me, she’s great). And the twisty plot never sits still long enough to bore.
I was hugely impressed by The Unbroken. I have my quibbles, but once I had acclimated to its richly-textured world, I was hooked. This is a grim book, with only rare moments of levity, but it’s also one that dares to hope for the power of revolution, for the strength to fight oppression. Oh, and best of all: It has an ending! Yes, there is absolutely room for more. There are threads left dangling. But the conclusion is far from a cliffhanger.
I really can’t recommend this one enough, and I can’t wait for the sequel.
Next Time: Winter’s Orbit, by Everina Maxwell