My Thoughts on The Unbroken
“Touraine was starting to think it was impossible to come from one land and to live in another and feel whole. That you would always stand on shaky, hole-ridden ground, half of your identity dug out of you and tossed away.”
The low magic, military fantasy “The Unbroken”- Book One of “Magic of the Lost” – by author C.L. Clark, previously nominated for both a Nebula and Ignyte Award, is a book I had on my radar for quite some time.
I was drawn to the compelling themes noted in the back cover blurb, which promised a story of characters navigating through the harshness of colonialism. I was not disappointed. This book was excellent, and I can see why it has received some lofty accolades.
In the novel, Clark takes the reader to the seemingly North-African inspired fictional Empire of Balladaire. Balladaire has conquered the Shālan Empire, and taken over its former territories of Qazāl. The bulk of the novel’s action takes place in El-Wast, which is the capital city of Qazāl.
Lieutenant Touraine is the commander of the conscripts – a wing of the Balladairan military, made up of kidnapped children from Qazāl, to augment the power of the empire. The conscript troops – disparagingly called “Sands” – are a segregated unit from the rest of the army, and though they fight bravely and capably, are considered lesser than the rest of the military, and constantly mistrusted by the Balladairan regulars.
Touraine is competent, ambitious, and has her eyes on a captaincy. She has the respect of those she leads, and has close friends, supporters, and a lover among her subordinates. She idolizes the tough, brilliant General Cantic, who has been somewhat of a mentor to her.
Meanwhile the disabled Princess Luca, is heir to the throne of the empire. Traditionally, Balladairan emperors and empresses abdicate once their heirs have come of age and proven themselves ready.
But Luca’s uncle Nicholas clings stubbornly to his rule, claiming Luca is not seasoned enough yet to take over.
This frustrates Luca, and motivates her to travel to the unruly colony of Qazāl. The reasoning is, if Luca can prove she can manage Qazāl effectively, it will demonstrate that she is fit to take over the entire empire.
Touraine and Luca’s path will intersect, as a violent revolt erupts, sides will be chosen, and both women will find they need each other to achieve their goals. But will they also find they need each other, beyond just ambition?
Every good book for me rests on the strength of the characters and, as such, I found the characters to be superlative in “The Unbroken”. It’s all about Touraine, who is a complicated, yet ultimately likeable hero.
She’s tough, courageous, and cares about protecting her troops. Yet she’s also duped, as product of her upbringing, having been kidnapped and indoctrinated into the life of a Sand leader. So much of her life is about self-hatred, not really knowing her origins – as they have been ripped away from her by the empire.
“…Impossible to come from one land and learn to live in another and feel whole… you always stand on shaky, hole-ridden ground, half of your identity dug out of you and tossed away.”
There are times if feels like Touraine is crumbling under the pressure of wanting to “belong”. She is isolated, in many ways, completely, from who is. She is complicit, in some ways, considered a sell-out, to her own people, even though she was snatched at birth, and forced to serve her oppressors, and mentally conditioned to want to be like them. On the other side, she will never been good enough for the Balladarians.
“You can’t be yourself unless you have a leash in your hand, and there’s always got to be someone attached to it.”
Watching Touraine’s trek through self-discovery, identity, and mindfulness was fascinating, and heart-wrenching. Her position in the novel reminded me of reading about the historical plight of African-American soldiers serving in segregated units in the United States Military, and brought to mind one of my all-time favourite movies, the Civil War epic “Glory”, featuring standout actors Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman. Yet in this case, the cause Touraine is fighting for, initially, as part of the Balladairan empire, is not her own freedom – in fact it’s quite the opposite.
“You’ll have to fight for one side or the other. Why not fight for the side that gives you freedom?”
Luca is also a compelling main character. She is insightful, sensitive, and I enjoyed seeing her strive to really find herself worthy of leadership, was very interesting. Her strategic, and sometimes (but not always) forward, progressive thinking, efforts at collaboration and negotiation, bravery in coping with her disability, sensitivity, and spirituality, were all attractive features of her makeup as a character.
While she too, like Touraine, is ambitious, and perhaps a bit too eager and impatient for power, she seems to have some measure of honourable motivations behind her want for the throne, not merely for the sake of power itself.
Luca too, must learn that there are few positives to colonialism, and as the colonizer, she is in as much of a precarious position as those underfoot.
The secondary characters in The Unbroken such as Djasha, Pruett, Tibeau, Aranen, and Jaghotai were excellent.
The worldbuilding is very well done, reminiscent of a north-African / Middle-Eastern-type world, with circa late nineteenth to early twentieth century technology, including rifles and handguns in terms of weaponry. There is also, magic! It is practiced by the Shālan religion, the main religion of Qazāl (which is outlawed by the Balladairan Empire) and includes some miraculous healing powers.
While we do not stretch far beyond the confines of El-Wast for this book, the author treats us to the posh domains of those at the top of the colonial hierarchy, and those downtrodden, suffering in poverty and obscurity under the boot of the oppressor. We are also treated to different cultures within the empire, such as the Many-Legged Tribe. I hope to see more of this rich world expanded in coming books in the series.
Surely, The Unbroken was one of the more nuanced I read this year, in terms of themes. The themes are hard-hitting, yet it is how Clark shows how these themes play out through the eyes of her characters, that I found outstanding.
Racism, colonialism, military conscription, slavery, torture, mutilation, child abduction, sexual assault, starvation, plague, and other brutal aspect of colonial life can be found in the novel.
In particular, the complexity of the dual impact of colonialism and racism, and the psychological confusion and effectual brainwashing can leave on those traumatized by it, are depicted in exceptional fashion by Clark.
Touraine is a person who has grown up loving, and simultaneously hating the colonizers. She’s caught between wanting to be like them, desiring their approval, so badly, and disparaging and looking down on her own origins as “uncivilized”. All, the while, in the back of her mind, knowing she will never be “accepted” by the colonizers, that she will always fall short in their eyes, and hating that which oppresses her people.
Trapped in an impossible situation, being in the military and part of the machine that is cruelly subjugating her own people, Touraine finds herself, her own path, to understanding and appreciating who and what she truly is, during the novel, and it was an incredible journey to witness.
This book truly resonated with me, and the concepts of being subsumed, “never being enough”, and being co-opted to wanting to become that which you hate, that those who are marginalized and colonized experience, were very moving, thought-provoking, and close to my heart.
The marginalized are well represented, and normalized in “The Unbroken”. Women, LGBTQIA2s+, persons of colour, persons with disabilities, are all represented in the book, and many of them have power / are in positions of prominence. The princess ruling the land, the colonial governor, top military commander, leader of the indigenous conscripts, and top leaders of the rebellion are all women.
The romance and relationships in The Unbroken were tantalizing, and candidly, a bit frustrating at times. But that was my issue, not the author’s. As the romantic feelings between the two main characters develop, I was hoping for them to spend more time together, and see where such a burgeoning, slow-burn romance could truly take them. Yet I see that this will likely be more fully explored in the next installment of the series.
There are some visceral, eye-catching action scenes, surrounding the rebellion, lots of intrigue, suspense, betrayals, changing of sides and perspectives, political machinations, and other facets of the novel that will keep the reader engaged.
The pace is measured, and the story is well-written.
The Unbroken unflinching look at colonialism, racism, and oppression, from unique perspectives, with a fabulously compelling female-led cast of characters, Sapphic romance, centered around a bloody revolution, I am very much anticipating continuing this series!