The Unbroken, by CL Clark is an incredibly human and raw adult fantasy that is heart-wrenching and powerful.
Synopsis: The Balladairan Empire has long since colonised the land of Qazāl and oppressed it’s people. Touraine, a child stolen from Qazāl and trained to kill for Balladaire has only ever known her fellow conscripts, soldiers, as family. But when her company is sent to deal with the rebels in Qazāl, Touraine struggles with where she belongs and who she is.
Luca is the Princess of Balladaire, a Princess fighting for her rightful place on the throne. Luca needs to control Qazāl and quell the rebellion, and to do it she needs someone desperate enough to help her form a peace between Balladaire and the rebels.
As Touraine and Luca struggle to keep the peace, they come to realise the price of peace might be higher than they expect. And with lives on the line, they must determine what and who are worth the cost.
CW/TW: Threats of rape/past attempted rape/threats of torture/gore/mutilation/executions/public hanging/colonisation/colonial violence/ableism.
Rep: Queernormative society/LGBTQ+ rep/Poc rep/disabled rep
The Unbroken, by CL Clark is a phenomenal, gritty and hard-hitting fantasy that is a story of the horrors of colonisations and its effects on the community, family and identity of those oppressed by power hungry Empires.
The Writing/Narrative: Clark’s prose is captivating and powerful. Clark‘s writing is extraordinary, they manage to perfectly balance the outright and blatant horrors of oppression and colonisation alongside a more nuanced approach of how this impacts the individual characters and their identity, the broad and nuanced expressions of the themes are perfectly entwined to create a story full of depth and emotion. The prose is raw and passionate from start to finish, laced with emotion and tension that ranges from the internal to the external. Moreover, Clark’s descriptions are rich and vivid, creating striking scenes that are absorbing and engaging, and their characters are complex and dynamic. From the political scenes to the action, she captures you with it all, from the tricky details to the heart-stopping risks. The pace of the book does build slowly, however, this works wonderfully with the story, and there is enough action woven into the slower star to keep you engaged and to keep the plot moving. I liked the slow build to the story, it worked well to establish the characters, the Empire and specifically Touraine who is a complex mc that needed this build up for us to engage with her throughout the story.
The novel has two main narratives running through it: Touraine’s which follows her as conscript and soldier, and Luca’s which follows her as Princess and heir to the Balladairan Empire. Both narrative perspectives work incredibly well with the story and perfectly match the plot and pacing. Touraine’s narrative gives us insight into the ‘Sands’ and the action, and Luca’s gives us insight into the politics and royalty of the Empire. The narratives complimented each other well, had strong and distinct voices and allowed us a lot of insight into different sides of the story, while also maintaining tension, suspense and mystery throughout the book and thus they aided the pace of the story nicely.
The Plot/Story/Magic: The Unbroken has an incredibly engaging and heart-breaking plot that keeps you engaged from start to finish. I believe the story is North-African inspired and the Empire seems to have French inspirations – the plot is centered around the Balladairan Empire and its colonisation of the Qazāl. Balladaire colonised Qazāl, stole its children, and trained them to become soldiers (termed ‘Sands’) who fight for the Empire. The overarching plot is that of oppression and the rebels who fight back – this was executed phenomenally and Clark seamlessly tackles the issues of colonisation, racism, systemic abuse and white-privilege throughout the story while also balancing the individual characters, the politics and the smaller scale plot elements. The story is heart-breaking and one of family, freedom and identity.
Touraine is a conscript, stolen from Qazāl, who is now being sent back with her soldiers to help fight the rebels. Touraine’s story is complex and heartbreaking – she goes through one of the biggest personal journeys over the course of the book. Touraine’s story starts with her being sent back to Qazāl, she is loyal to the Empire believing she can still become respected if she rises through the ranks – she feels no ties to Qazāl having been taken at such a young age that she doesn’t recognise it nor remember the language. As Touraine’s life becomes tangled with Luca and the rebels, she begins to see that maybe the Empire really is oppressive and cruel. I loved Touraine’s storyline but it is a painful journey full of emotion and conflict. Touraine’s storyline is complex and multi-dimensional, and it kicks off by diving straight into the brutality of this world in two ways. Firstly the opening conversation immediately sets a heart-breaking tone of loss and absence with the conscripts (“Sands”) discussing Qazāl as home – Touraine, feeling no ties due to being taken at such a young age, claims it isn’t home at all. This immediately builds tension between those who remember Qazāl and Touraine but also sets the tone for the rest of the book – it illustrates how easily the Balladairan Empire erased Touraine’s identity and turned her into a loyal soldier. It is a powerful opening scene that perfectly sets up for Touraine’s character and development over the course of the book.
Secondly, the brutality of the Empire is then shown in action, with the rebels committing their first act since the conscripts arrival. To avoid spoilers I won’t detail this too much but the cruel nature of ‘justice’ is quickly shown and the cruel side of the Balladairan ‘education’ given to the conscripts is shown through Touraine’s loyalty and blind obedience. Clark does an incredible job at showing the widespread and individual effects of colonisation through action scenes and violence but also through simple conversation and this is maintained throughout the whole book. Touraine’s story is full of twists and turns arising from uncertainty – she makes many questionable and harmful decisions that, as a reader will be frustrating, but the motivation behind these actions and how it ties into Touraine’s conflict of where she truly belongs makes these decisions understandable and while still a bit frustrating, it is more painful because we are seeing her struggle.
Touraine’s story is highly personal but we also get a broad scope from her narrative, insight into the conscripts (her family and friends), insight into the nobility through Luca, and insight into the rebels through the work towards peace. I loved Touraine’s links to all of these separate strands and found it worked incredibly well having her tie it all together. All three elements were interesting and intriguing, I enjoyed the dynamic with the rebels, and with Luca – all of which helped build a brilliant and complex story.
Luca’s story is much more political and aided Touraine’s narrative wonderfully. Luca, the Princess, is fighting to get her uncle off the throne, peacefully, so she can take her rightful place. To do this she must prove herself by dealing with the rebels in Qazāl. Luca’s aim is to do this through peace, which initially sounds fantastic, but her peace still keeps them under the Balladairan Empire’s control – and Luca is after something more too. Luca’s story is interesting because in some ways she is admirable, her strength comes from her intelligence (particularly as she is often seen a less than capable due to her disability – she uses a cane). I loved how Luca was in her head forming plot after plot, it made her narrative incredibly interesting. However, Luca’s story is complex because the politics is fantastically written and engaging, but Luca is Princess to the Empire that colonised the Qazāl, and while she seemingly frowns on their cruel treatment, she only steps in when it will help her. Not only that she has dubious goals that speak to her ignorance of the pain colonisation causes because though she makes effort to aide those her Empire exploits, she still wishes to take more from them. Luca’s story leads to some interesting changes on her part, particularly as she develops a relationship with Touraine.
The romance between Touraine and Luca is subtle, more angst and suppression than anything (though there are some heart-racing moments!) but I actually like this for this book. I think it worked well because at this point in time Touraine doesn’t know where she belongs and Luca is too obsessed with her throne and other goals. I loved the dynamic between them and thought the relationship between them worked well with the wider story.
Finally, the magic. Clark does an incredible job at subtly weaving the magic into the story – it is not the focus because religion has been banned by the Empire, but it is there and present in a nuanced way that worked really well. The Qazāl have magic, though we don’t learn how, why or what it is until later. However, you do learn it in little pieces that slowly tie together, and the more you learn the more interesting it is. I frankly adored the magic system that exists in this book and liked its subtle presence and how it comes into play in bigger ways over the course of the story. I can’t say much about it because of spoilers but the magic and beliefs behind it are incredibly rich and woven into the story so well that you don’t even realise how much there is too it until you think back!
Overall, the story/plot/magic is all fantastic and so well constructed, the themes are perfectly explored both broadly and in a more individualised way, the narratives perfectly compliment each other, the scope is perfect and allows for tension and suspense and the magic is woven into the story perfectly. Honestly I could go on and on about the plot but I wont because you just need to read it!
Characters. Every single character in this book is absolutely amazing, well built and dynamic, even all the side characters are incredibly distinctive and well crafted. The story consists of multiple LGBTQ+ characters, PoC characters, disabled rep and the society is queernormative. There are A LOT of characters, so I’m just going to focus on the MC’s of the book because you simply need to meet the rest by reading because they are all fantastic.
Touraine. Touraine is a fantastic character who happens to make lots of terrible decisions. Touraine is quick, strong, and smart in her own way, though naive about the Empire and it takes her a while to see the truth. She develops well over the course of the book, and her relationships with the other characters are complex and realistic. Touraine can be frustrating but her story is raw and emotional, and her decisions make sense in the context of the story and her personality. She is such a hard character to explain because she is so human, Clark did an incredibly job giving us a raw, realistic character who has suffered and doesn’t see just how much she has. One thing I particularly liked was that Touraine is a soldier who will keep fighting for those she loves but she has symptoms of her suffering – Touraine exhibits panic attacks and the way she deals with them is written very well and draws on actual ways of dealing with them (i.e counting what you can see, smell etc…) this little detail is so important and was done very well. I love this character for so many reasons. (Also yes I have joined the TOURAINE’S ARMS crew!)
Luca. Luca, the Princess, was a character I loved but also was frustrated with at times. Firstly though, she is our physically disabled character who uses a cane (I didn’t know this book had disabled rep so I was pleasantly surprised.) Luca’s chronic pain in her legs, the weakness she feels, all of it was written incredibly well and I was thrilled (I was also thrilled that she turned to other strengths and didn’t become obsessed about being healed). Ok, moving on! Luca is incredibly clever and manipulative, she is a master of many plots, though she can be impulsive which leads to others being harmed. Luca was interesting because she did seem to want peace and did not like the cruel exploitation of the Qazāl but as part of the colonising Empire she didn’t exactly want their freedom, and she made some bad decisions regarding the Qazāl making her frustrating. However, this portrayal was perfect because Luca is privileged and lived a grand life supported by this exploitation so her ignorance to its harms was realistic and handled well. Her development is interesting over the course of the book too.
As I said, all the side characters are also amazing, I particularly loved the mother-daughter relationship that is explored throughout the book which was devastating and complex. I loved the band of rebels, the conscripts were interesting and the nobility had its fair share of intriguing characters. Not to mention some characters that I seriously wanted Touraine to murder outright (The first is him, the creepy, sickening, spine-chilling man who struts around the conscripts, when you meet him you will know. The second a noble who I wanted to bash around the head – and yes you will know when you meet him too.) Anyway, Other well built characters to look out for are Pruett, Tibeau, the General, and all the rebels (and more!).
Overall. This book is an amazing read with a gritty complex and hard-hitting story full of raw and realistic characters, interesting magic and a phenomenal world. I loved this book, it was well paced with beautiful prose that will keep you engaged from start to finish.
I highly recommend this to everyone who loves military fantasy! Readers will love this if you liked/are interested in The Jasmine Throne, by Tasha Suri and She Who Became The Sun, by Shelley Parker-Chan.
This book drops on the 25th March, so get your preorders in quick because this book is worth it!
*I received an eARC via #Netgalley from @Orbitbooks in exchange for an honest review! Thank you so much for the eARC! *