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Tuesday, March 16, 2021

The Unbroken by C. L. Clark (reviewed by Caitlin Grieve)



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OFFICIAL AUTHOR WEBSITE: Cherae (C. L.) Clark graduated from Indiana University’s creative writing MFA and was a 2012 Lambda Literary Fellow. She’s been a personal trainer, an English teacher, and an editor, and is some combination thereof as she travels the world. When she’s not writing or working, she’s learning languages, doing P90something, or reading about war and [post-]colonial history. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in FIYAH, PodCastle, Uncanny and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Now she’s one of the co-editors at PodCastle.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: 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.

FORMAT/INFO: The Unbroken will be published on March 23rd, 2021 by Orbit Books. It is 493 pages split over 43 chapters and an epilogue. It is told in third person from Touraine's and Luca's POV. It will be available in paperback and ebook formats.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Touraine is a conscript soldier, snatched from her homeland at the age of five. For over 20 years, she’s been raised with her fellow conscripts by the Balladairans, trained to forget her “uncivilized” behavior. Touraine knows the Balladairans are stronger than her people, that the best way to get through life is to be the best soldier she can, and one day she’ll be recognized for her achievements. One day she’ll be able to make life better for her people. But a chance encounter with rebels leaves Touraine facing execution, and she desperately takes the only way out offered to her: to work with the newly arrived Princess Luca to both negotiate with and spy on the rebels in the hopes of bringing peace to the colony. 

Luca wants the fighting to stop and to better the lives of the Qazali, but above all she wants to establish herself as worthy of ending her uncle’s regency and putting herself on the throne of the empire. Bringing peace to the colony in her mind will prove that she is ready to take the throne. But Touraine and Luca have differing opinions about acceptable costs to bring about peace, and it isn’t long before both women are forced to make choices from which there is no return.

The Unbroken
is a book that takes an unflinching look at colonialism and the insidious mindsets that creep into the most well-meaning of people. It does so through two utterly flawed characters, Touraine and Luca. Touraine spends a good chunk of the book trying to prove herself to the Balladairans who kidnapped her. In her mind, her people lost, there’s no point in resisting, there’s only showing her masters that she is “civilized.” Surely, because life is fair, she will be recognized for her hard work and she and her troops will be given the respect they deserve. But of course, life isn’t fair or simple, as many of the people she crosses paths with point out. Touraine’s left adrift trying to figure out who she is, living in that horrid middle ground between Balladairan and Qazali that she was forced into when she was conscripted.

Luca, meanwhile, is a “good” colonialist. She’s here to make reforms so that the colonized subjects aren’t mistreated. In other books, she’d be one of the heroes. And while she’s well-meaning, her altruism is crippled by the fact that she views this colony as “hers” and just wants the rebels to sit down and accept that fact. And that’s the heart of the conflict between the rebels and the crown: both sides view the land as theirs, and neither is willing to relinquish control. Luca’s constant need to take what isn’t simply given to her undermines her better nature, making her a grayer character than I anticipated.

Into this whole mess of power dynamics enters the relationship between Touraine and Luca. And here’s where your mileage may vary a bit. I was completely on-board with the 75% of this arc. The author was fully cognizant of the inherent power imbalance at the heart of the relationship, and doesn’t cross lines. The two come together in a way that’s natural but still fully aware of the problems, and Touraine does grow into someone who demands her equality. But this is a book full of betrayals and manipulations and bloody death, and both women go to some awful lengths in pursuit of their goals. Yet somehow, through it all, they’re still into each other. It makes for a few repetitive beats as they keep trying to save each other from the consequences of their actions, even as the world literally burns around them. At some point you have to acknowledge there are things you can’t get past and that the other has crossed the line. You can’t just keep going “Well, she helped orchestrate the death of a bunch of people on my side, but she means well.”

CONCLUSION: The Unbroken is a story of the bloody mess that results from colonialism, and does so through its fantastic character work. Touraine and Luca pull this story through, even while they’re both making a mess of a situation. The author easily puts you into their heads as they try to sort out a problem much bigger than either of them. Through these characters, we see the compromises and devastation that can happen as two sides try to find a way to either coexist, or quash the other completely. While I had some mild frustrations at the end, the set-up for book two is intriguing, and I look forward to seeing how things continue to unfold!

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