Touraine returns home to Qazāl intent on being the first colonial to achieve rank within the Balladairan army. Luca comes to Qazāl to prove her fitness for the Balladairan throne by defusing rising unrest against colonial rule. But the Qazāli have good reason to rebel. Touraine and Luca are determined to bring peace, but can they bear the cost?
The Unbroken was one of my most anticipated reads for 2021 and one of the most talked about books on my timeline through the first half of the year. That’s a whole lot of pressure – not least for a debut! – but The Unbroken rises to the occasion. Me, on the other hand? I screamed my way through it then psyched myself out of writing a review all year. What could I possibly say that hasn’t been said already? Well, nothing, and I’ve certainly left it too late for nuance, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t share how much I liked this, or why. So here we are.
The Unbroken is set in a secondary world inspired by French colonial rule in North Africa, and the narrative is sharp with prejudice and rage. We meet Touraine of the now-famous arms as she returns home for the first time since being seized as a child and conscripted into the Balladairan army. Stripped of her birth name and her language, she has been beaten into believing in systems used only to oppress her. Convinced that merit will be rewarded, she is an exemplary soldier, naively idealistic in spite of seeing fellow conscripts executed or used as cannon fodder. She will try to prove her loyalty again and again to an Empire that will never consider a dark-skinned Sand a true citizen.
That screaming I did? It was almost entirely TOURAINE NO.
I felt deeply for Touraine – caught between wanting to please her commanding officer (a General with a reputation for committing atrocities as shortcuts to peace); to protect her increasingly disillusioned unit (the closest she has to family); to support Luca (herself trying to balance political expediency, necessity and opportunity); and to connect with her people, rebels who can’t understand her commitment to the Empire that oppresses them.
I raged at Luca, who aspires to do better but only acknowledges some of the horrors committed in her empire’s name – after all, alienating her nobility won’t secure her throne. Still, I appreciated that in spite of her attraction to Touraine (those arms, folks; legendary for a reason), she is determined not to take advantage of someone who can’t give meaningful consent – because Touraine isn’t just her soldier, she’s a slave.
I loved The Unbroken. It could have been just another fantasy rebellion, another clusterfuck redeemed by a couple’s love for one another against all odds. Instead, it’s a full-throated fuck you to colonial empires and systemic racism; a drama of characters as compromised as they are uncompromising, whose every option is a betrayal. Everyone is as flawed as they are deeply committed, willing to countenance horrific deeds in service to their cause.
The result is often bleak, but always satisfying. This is largely down to Clark’s command of craft (and this is a debut, the future is so bright). The desert city is so real you can feel the grit in your eyes. There’s a depth to the world-building that – looking back now – feels like I absorbed a whole series rather than a single book. The characters are vulnerable behind their jagged edges, their awful choices as inevitable as they are shocking. If the pacing is uneven in places, the plot at times a little disjointed, Clark built more than enough goodwill for me to sail past it – in part with the deft handling of the relationships, smouldering from the get-go, slowly building to a blaze that can only consume.
…I’m still screaming, but now I’m screaming for the sequel.
I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest — if awfully belated – review.