The Unbroken by CL Clark
I highly recommend reading Your Tita Kate’s review, which is just phenomenal.
She was their pet. And she’d be a well-dressed one, but she’d dance all the same.
Touraine is a conscript, torn from her home as a child and sent into the army of her enemy. For over twenty years she’s lived, breathed and exemplified the pinnacles of perfection for the empire. But it’s never enough, because when she’s drugged, attacked and kidnapped by the rebels, her people focus on the death of a soldier and Touraine’s supposed role. She is saved only by the world of the empire’s princess, who needs someone who can liaise with the rebels. But Luca has her own agenda, and Touraine is tired of being a pet…
Holy fuck me this lives up to the hype and then some.
I need book two. I have no idea where book two is going to go, but I need it.
Touraine was starting to think it was impossible to come from one land and learn to live in another and feel whole
This was one of those books where I wasn’t quite swept away by page one, but by page 10 I was hooked. The writing style, the world-building, the plot, the tense relationships—I loved all of it.
The Empire of Balladaire doesn’t believe in magic or gods—those are for the barbarians they conquer, and are to be eradicated. Except Luca, a scholar fascinated by the arcane, wants the answers to magic, yearns to bring something back to the empire’s homelands so she can kick her uncle off the throne and take her rightful place on its seat.
Is everything yours for the taking? Do you care about anyone but yourself?
Luca was complicated, intelligent, and had some glaring blindspots (she is, in essence, a liberal whyte woman who doesn’t know or denies she has blindspots and privilege because of the hardships she’s faced as the physically disabled semi-deposed heir of a kingdom that prides physicality).
I loved how Clark demonstrated intent versus impact with Luca and her perceptions of the world. Luca intends to make right, by settling the rebellion with minimal bloodshed and making things “right” for the rebels and the empire. She goes to the rebel leaders, liaises with them, kinda builds their trust, and goes halfsies on some of their agreements. However. Her intentions to do right are perceived for what they are—fumbling half-assed appeasements that will settle the rebels down without pissing off the imperial colonizers who make the money. Luca is so ingrained into the current system that she cannot see that her brilliant ideas still have the same consequences and effects as the previous rulers’ actions, just with a new flair.
And so, when her plans go up in smoke (honestly, she was surprisingly pretty close to succeeding), she reverts back to what has worked—outright subjection. When she encounters resistance and backlash, she turns back to the system of colonization instead of continuing to work to dismantle the system she is implicitly responsible for, thanks to her privilege and position in the imperial elite. It was a fascinating case-study, with lots of analogies to the issues of American society and allyship (and also analogies to France and northern Africa, which this book was loosely based on).
It’s a crime to keep those arms of yours hidden away in an army coat.
I really, really loved Touraine. She’s messy, she’s complicated, she just wants to survive at all costs, and she finds her alliances torn in two. She’s a person who knew who she was and her place in the world, and wanted to rise higher to help her conscripts—and by rising higher she had vertically integrated herself into the system of oppression (also trauma and brainwashing since she was super duper young when she was stolen from her family).
So when she returns to the land of her birth, she’s under suspicion from both her higher (who think she’s going to run back to “her” people, despite how much she’s proven her worth) and from the indigenous population (who regard her as a traitor/pathetic tool of the system). Of course this is going to come to a head, and of course Touraine is going to make some really messy decisions, because she’s a woman used to being decisive and having one direction only, and now she’s being horrifically torn into four different directions (towards her former general/pseudo-mother figure and her dreams of military achievement, towards Luca and the ideals of a better empire based upon the structures of the past, towards the rebels and what is right but complicated, and towards the Sands, her fellow conscripts).
What is war if not a complicated web of mathematics and charm?
So in addition to these fascinating character studies, there’s also a rip-roaring military-political plot, with several subplots of magic and belonging and festering sexual chemistry. The plot does slow in the middle, but there is just so much juicy set up and tension that I really didn’t mind it. There’s a lot of back and forth—between, well, everyone—and it was fascinating to dive into this complex world and uncover everyone’s really jarring and contentious motivations. Because everyone in this book has their own motivation for doing things, and a lot the times the decisions they make are at odds with what is best for them in the long term (or hell, even in the short term).
I did like how this really dived into the horrors of war. War is not glorified in any sense, and it shows those who do glorify it (Touraine’s asshole captain) in really awful light, and as only able to glorify it because of his position as noble and officer and therefore distanced from the true horrors, able to pick and choose what he experiences instead of being in for the entire suck, as Touraine and the Sands are.
It also show the different aspects of war—not just from the soldier perspective, but from the brass, and the nobility (both imported and born in the country), and also the rebels and the regular civilians trying to live their lives, who are caught between their colonizers and the rebels, a bad position either way they choose (the colonizers view them as inhuman but useful resources to be exploited, while if they side with the rebels they are with their people but also are targets for the colonizers—it’s a bad decision either way).
And, it shows a really, really awful take on war from a soldier’s perspective—I am talking about Cantric. Without spoilers, let’s just say that it’s on the same level as that monologue in A Few Good Men—it sure makes a great soundbite, but when you dig into the complications and impact, whew, no.
Who needs a god of oceans when I could drown inside your eyes? Who needs a god of grain when I could feast between your thighs?
Mild spoilers here on out
As for the romance aspect. Hmm. It wasn’t as…all there as the blurb implied?
And I think that’s a good thing. Because there was a lot between Touraine and Luca, from their sexual chemistry to their differences in background, station, viewpoints, privilege, and well, um, everything. At least they realize it’s a bad idea, although Touraine is so used to operating by survival and becoming a chameleon that of course she’s going to do whatever it takes to survive and thrive, and Luca…Luca realizes that and doesn’t really press.
However, this book is incredibly sapphic. There are so many sapphic relationships embedded into the storyline that I was just so, so happy throughout the entire read.
Anywho, I just droned on and on and on about absolutely nothing in particular, just that this is definitely one to pick up if you’re looking for a gritty military-political fantasy. It reminded me a lot of Wexler’s The Thousand Names, except the sapphic representation was actually good and it really dove into the nuance of colonialism and imperialism from a number of different points of view instead of just the colonizers’.
Definitely a must read, and not just because of that fucking fabulous cover.
It is really flexing its right to bear arms.
I received this ARC from Edelweiss for an honest review
The Unbroken releases March 23, 2021, from Orbit