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Nathan’s review of The Faithless by CL Clark

*There are light spoilers for The Unbroken in this review of The Fathless.

The Unbroken broke out in the fantasy scene in early 2021 as the first member of what became known as the “fantasy sapphic trinity” (along with The Jasmine Throne and She Who Became the Sun). However, while those books went on to great critical acclaim and awards attention (Throne won the World Fantasy Award and Sun was nominated for the Hugo), The Unbroken always felt like the underdog. It always felt like it did not receive the respect that it deserved, especially since Clark delivered a solid debut with a stunning and nuanced look at the various social forces of colonialism at both the individual and structural levels.

With the arrival of The Faithless, I think we can honestly say that this trilogy deserves the attention of its compatriots, and it might be the best examination of colonialism that I have ever read in the fantasy genre.

The Faithless picks up where The Unbroken left off (and attention readers, Clark gives little additional context to catch you back up, so a refresher might be in order if it’s been a while since you’ve read The Unbroken!). The nation of Qazal is acting as an independent state now that it has overthrown the yoke of Belladaire, with Tourraine (the one with the sexy arms) acting as a member of its leading council and Ambassador to Belladaire. Luca is back in Belladaire in her own power game – her uncle currently occupies the throne and isn’t willing to give it up. What results is a book of political alliances, tense relationships, and characters thrust into difficult choices as they try to balance their political roles, personal feelings, and entangled social positions.

The Faithless is a very different book than its predecessor because while The Unbroken was all about Tourraine and Qazal, The Faithless is all about Luca and Belladaire (as exemplified by the amazing cover art – Orbit once again pulled out a banger!). Most of our characters very quickly wind up in Belladaire, and we get to explore the complexities of Belladairan politics. Therefore, while The Unbroken was largely a war story, this is book is much more interested in court politics. This shift in focus personally really worked for me, although readers expecting the same level of action as The Unbroken might wind up a bit dissapointed. I really enjoyed getting to see Luca squarely in her element, while Tourraine was the one trying to learn how to fit into the upper crusts of society in her new role as Ambassador.

I cannot emphasize enough that Clark’s true brilliance shines in her exploration of colonial relations. Too often in fantasy there is a good/bad binary in which there is the “evil empire” versus the “good rebels”. While Clark deftly avoids “all sides mattering” the issue, she also ensures that her characters and readers both understand that colonial relations do not exist as a simple binary. The colonizers and colonized mix and mingle in unique ways so that there are all shades of gray represented in people’s beliefs, allegiances, and actions. For example, Tourraine was born in Qazal, but raised in Balladaire, while Luca has sympathies for the Qazal people but is still an important member of the colonizing elite. Clark also takes time to explore some of Qazal’s sister countries, and how some of them are even willing to be complicit in Balladaire’s colonial and expansionist goals in the region. All of the messy relations Clark explores in the book beautifully reflect the real world we live in. Some fantasy readers may be a tad critical or disappointed in how closely Clark’s world is a direct reflection of our own (all of the Balladairan names, styles, and fashion are French inspired, for example), but like the great works of Guy Gavriel Kay she uses small yet significant changes to make important observations about our own global history.

Another interesting element to The Faithless is Clark’s exploration of class dynamics. There is an entire subplot (that eventually intersects with the main plot) about the unhappy Balladairan underclass, and how they blame both the Belladairan nobility and Qazali immigrants for their low and oppressed position in society. This allowed Clark to broaden the world a bit while also exploring the complex intersection of class and xenophobia.

No matter what else is going on, the true center of this trilogy is the complicated relationship between Tourraine and Luca….and they go through it in this book. There are several very high highs and very low lows for their relationship in The Faithless, and Tourraine and Luca continually fall in and out of each other’s orbits. Normally this kind of relationship would be really frustrating to me as the reader; often authors just throw complications at a relationship in order to build plot and delay the happily ever after. Clark expertly weaves her way through this thorny situation. Instead of feeling frustrating, the ups and downs of Luca and Tourraine’s relationship feels organic to the characters and the world they live in. On one hand they love each; they are soulmates. On the other hand, they live on opposite sides of a brutal conflict and a legacy of racist relations between their nations. In the next book Clark could literally write about aliens invading from Mars and I would still be on board just for Tourraine and Luca.

And this is all because Clark isn’t afraid to push her characters into ethical corners and then let them figure out how to escape. Luca, Tourraine, and the rest of the diverse cast don’t always make the choices that we hoped they would make, but they always make the choice that makes sense for their character in the moment. While there were times when I was screaming at a character not to do something, I never felt like someone acted out of character. Clark develops each of her characters, even the more minor ones like Sabine, with such depth and nuance that their choices are comprehensible, if at times reprehensible.

If I had a criticism of The Faithless it would be that the larger plot arc could have been more tightly delivered in this book. Clark obviously has big plans for the god and blood based magic systems, and the failing crops in Balladaire. There are a lot of hints to larger magical forces underlining a lot of the plot in The Faithless. I understand that perhaps Clark didn’t want to overstuff this middle volume as she spent time developing Luca’s fight for control of the Balladairan court, but at times the larger overarching story took too much of a backseat. By the end of The Faithless I was still a little confused about where the plot was going (and not in a “ooh, the author surprised me kind of way; more of a “the larger plot has little momentum” kind of way). I think this could frustrate some readers who were anticipating an acceleration of the larger mythos rather than a relatively self-contained royal succession power struggle.

Clark has left a lot to explore as she (presumably) wraps up the story in the next volume of the series, but no matter what happens I am willing to follow Tourraine and Luca anywhere.

Concluding Thoughts: Fans of The Unbroken will be excited to continue Tourraine’s and Luca’s journey as the plot shifts from Qazal to Balladaire. Clark expertly weaves her characters into thorny and complex political situations that allows her explore issues related to colonialism, imperialism, racism, and loyalty. Tourraine and Luca’s relationship remains as captivating as ever, and they propel the reader through the book’s 500+ pages. This book loses a little of its bite by keeping the larger, trilogy spanning plot a bit close to the vest, but it remains an exciting and thought-provoking read.

 

Thank you for reading my review of The Faithless!

Nathan

Nathan is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology where he specializes in death rituals of the Ice Age in Europe and queer theory. Originally from Ohio, he currently lives in Kansas where he teaches college anthropology, watches too much TV, and attempts to make the perfect macarons in a humid climate. He is also the co-host of The Dragonfire podcast with James Lloyd Dulin. He reads widely in fantasy and sci-fi and is always looking for new favorites!

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