There was something absolutely exceptional about this – very different – fantasy book. I’m going to try and capture it as best as I can. It certainly had weaknesses, and it’s meant to be a hard read, but this is fantasy rooted in historical realism at its finest.
This is my spot on the blog tour for The Unbroken with Compulsive Readers.
Title: The Unbroken
Series: The Magic of the Lost #1
Author: C. L. Clark
Publication Date: 25th March 2021
Ownership: ARC provided by the publisher for a Compulsive Readers book tour
Rating: 4.5 stars (rounded up to 5)
About the Book
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.
First off, I was completely bowled over by the main character and her experiences. Why haven’t I read a fantasy book from the perspective of a character like Touraine before? For the first two hundred pages, I was gushing to anyone who would listen about her.
Taken from her home, a new colony of the Balladaire Empire, at a young age and conscripted into the army, Balladaire is the only home Touraine has ever known. It has punished her, cared for her, given her purpose and, when she returns to Shalan, the country/colony that she was taken from with her colonial battalion (known dismissively as “The Sands”) she is faced with a choice – remain loyal to the Empire that has both destroyed and given her life, or return to a place where she can’t speak the language or speak the culture.
That’s an incredibly powerful issue in itself (and one that, for all the Empires that are thrown around in fantasy literature, is never really dealt with – to my knowledge – and you can really tell the author’s own understanding and impressively nuanced writing on the topic). Yes we meet down-trodden people who then spark a rebellion in fantasy literature, but that’s not what Touraine is doing. She has lived on the edge of two worlds all of her life and is welcome in neither, so her true loyalty lies with her adopted family – the conscripts and colonial troops who have bled and died next to her.
When Touraine is framed for the murder of a full citizen from Balladaire, she meets the Princess Luca, who is waiting to regain her thrown from the hands of her regent uncle and sent to govern over the Qazali. Luca sees an opportunity – a “native” who can infiltrate and negotiate with the rebels who threaten the Empire’s hold on this colony on her behalf.
Add to that, rumours that there is a magic native to this region, one that can heal and potentially remove the greatest threat to the Empire; plague.
This bubbling pot of fear, and rebellion and loyalty and belonging is told so, SO well. From the conscripts themselves, some of the Sands are desperate to return home, to reunite with families and to join the local rebellion. Others have no intention of ruining their best chances for survival. Others just want to get by and do the best they can. Touraine falls into this last category, but finds her point of view shifting throughout the story as she finds that she can create a place for herself in this world.
The setting is also this stunning North African-inspired city-river-desert arrangement. And a lost, abandoned city just across the river that cannot be entered. I for one love solid descriptions of streets and layouts and architecture – it appeals to the archaeologist and art historian in me, although I know that won’t be to everyone’s tastes.
The author also describes this as a queernorm world. And it’s perfect – there’s no discussion or issue about people taking lovers, partners or being married. And many characters seem to have very fluid sexual preferences without it becoming A Thing – this is normal for this world and it is beautiful to read this done well. Add to that, this is an incredibly female-heavy cast. All genders wear practical trousers and women hold positions within the army without discussion or complaint – thank goodness.
This all being said, there will always be some issues with a plot that is trying to do SO MUCH.
First: Touraine is used like a pawn. She is given the impression that she has agency, and knows that she doesn’t because, for everything that is given, it can just as easily be taken away. As such, Luca is sending her (the potentially least qualified person) to negotiate with the rebels but Touraine is not quite representing anyone’s interests fully, not even her own. This leads to a heck-tonne of betrayals. So many betrayals. Betrayals everywhere. To the point where people really need to stop trusting this woman and turning to her for leadership. No matter how handsome and well-muscled she is, please don’t trust her – she doesn’t know her own mind yet.
I know that a huge part of that is Touraine finding her own agency for the first time, and working out where her loyalties lie and what her cause is. But seriously, stop letting her into your meetings and your homes.
Second: this is a chonky book but it felt like so much still went unsaid, particularly between Luca and Touraine. This is a romance I wanted to enjoy (but at the same time I am so glad that it was absent because there are some quite big issues with a colonial romance when one person is in an extreme position of power). But not just that so much was left unsaid between the two main characters, but it also felt as though a lot was being withheld from the reader. I wasn’t entirely clear about Touraine or Luca’s motivations partway through the book as they seemed to get lost in the wider story.
Third: the magic. In some ways, you could completely loose the magic from this entire book and it wouldn’t take away from the story itself, and the characters would probably behave in entirely the same way. The magic isn’t yet explained well (although I could pick up some things that I presume are setting this up for the next in the series). Just like Luca and Touraine’s relationship, I’m sure that more is coming…
Fourth: There are a lot of characters and I wasn’t convinced that Touraine that was keeping track of them all. Despite some proper tragic things happening, for reason number 2, this didn’t seem to weigh on her mind as much as I’d expect.
However, this book reads like an incredible undertaking. It is a sensitively, brutally told, story of Empire, rebellion and agency, featuring a beautifully detailed world, and I was completely bowled over by it.
I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley and Orbit Book, for a Compulsive Readers blog tour, in exchange for an honest review.