Book Reviews · Fantasy

The Unbroken by C.L. Clark

Every Empire Demands Revolution

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.

Thank you to NetGalley and Orbit for the eARC in exchange for an honest review.

First of all, take a look at this map! A book will have me immediately more invested when it has a map at the front, and this one is a beautiful one. I love the fact that, if you look closely, you can see handwritten notes around certain areas, and the way it has fold lines, making it feel more real. The only sad thing was that, since I was reading this as an ebook, I couldn’t keep flicking back to the map as I usually would, but as everything takes place in one city, it wasn’t too much of a problem, and once the physical copy I’ve preordered arrives, I can gaze at it as much as I like!

The story is set in a queernorm North African inspired fantasy world, where Balladaire –a French style nation– has expanded and colonised Qazāl, a desert city, banning their religion as uncivilised, taking advantage of their people for menial labour, and stealing their children to raise them as soldiers for the empire. This is where Touraine, one of our main characters, comes in. She was born in Quazāl but at five years old was taken by the Balladairans and trained to be a soldier. She was given an education, and she rose in the ranks of the “Sands”, as the conscripts from Balladaire’s colonies are called, to become a lieutenant. She believes that if she works hard enough, and proves her loyalty, she can rise even further and gain recognition and prestige for her troop.

Now, however, Touraine and her soldiers have been shipped out to her homeland to maintain order in an environment full of tension; rebels are growing bolder, and the death of the Balladairan king who first added Qazāl to the empire has thrown the balance of power. This is why princess Luca Ancier, the king’s daughter, has also travelled to Qazāl; she needs to reestablish control over the colony to give her regent uncle no reason to deny her the throne. When she arrives however, an attempt on her life will lead her to Touraine, and they will find that they need one another to reach their goals.

‘Know a person’s desires, and you have leverage—give a person their desires, and you have an extension of your own will.’

It is an absolutely wild ride, let me tell you! I don’t generally read military fantasies, but the amount of praise this book has already generated from fellow reviewers and other genre authors made me want to read it, and I’m so glad I did. It’s beautifully executed. It has a diverse and well-rounded cast, with Touraine and Luca being the two point of view characters (third person, past tense narration, for those of you who like to know). However, I will say that you should not go into it lightly. This is a story of war, rebellion, and imperialism, and not everyone will live to see the other side.

There is a lot that goes on in this book, and a lot of the time I found myself groaning as either Luca or Touraine did something stupid that had terrible consequences (which would usually turn me off of a story), but it all felt very in-character, and I loved watching their relationship develop. Touraine, with her strategy and soldier training, and her beautifully muscular arms (I definitely stared at the cover of this book far too long), and Luca with her academics, idealism, and desire for power. Not to mention the fact that one woman is the product of the colonialism of the other’s family. They definitely butt heads, and yet there is also a respect and tenderness there that I really enjoyed reading.

‘Touraine was starting to think it was impossible to come from one land and learn to live in another and feel whole. That you would always stand on shaky, hole-ridden ground, half your identity dug out of you and tossed away.’

The themes tackled in The Unbroken are incredibly contemporary; the effects of colonialism and forced cultural integration, the dismantling of religion and the question of faith, the value of human life over the continued wealth of those already in power… It was particularly interesting for me to read the nuances of the dispossessed characters in this story; Touraine and her “Sands” are not from Balladaire, and yet they have been given a Balladairan-focused education, have been stripped of their first language, and have been beaten out of their faith. When they return to Qazāl they do not relate to the locals, but those born in Balladaire will never see them as equal. As a person who has lived in a few different countries by choice, it is already hard to reconcile cultural identities, so I can only imagine a sliver of what it must be like for those who have no say in the matter. This is actually addressed in the book too, which was really interesting; some of the children of Balladairans who live in Qazāl have grown up there their entire lives, and they too struggle to know where they fit in. Clark has created a complex, chaotic world that feels incredibly real.

There are so many other things I could say about this book! There are so many little details I picked up, and I know that on my next read I’ll notice even more. My favourite detail has to be grief rings, which people wear to commemorate lost loved ones, generally spouses or children from what I understood. I don’t know if this has any equivalent in a real world culture, but it was something that really struck me. I also thoroughly appreciated that one of the characters is a bookseller, and he was probably my favourite minor character. Go Saïd!

Overall, a stellar debut, and I will be eagerly awaiting book two in the Magic of the Lost series. I hope we get to explore a little more of the map, and perhaps see a bit more of the magic.

Book Info

Published: 25th March 2021 by Orbit
Genre: fantasy, military fantasy
Pages: 464
Series: Magic of the Lost, book one
Narration style: third person past tense, two narrators
Format read: eARC
Copy owned: yes
Trigger Warnings: violence, death, torture, slavery, racism, forced institutionalisation, child abuse

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