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.
Length: 528 pages
Thank you to NetGalley for a free copy of this title in exchange for an honest review.
The Unbroken was on my list of most anticipated books for 2021, and unlike some of the others on that list, it did not let me down. I loved this book. It’s a political fantasy, which is a category of books I love. But this isn’t just about kingdoms outmanoeuvring each other, medieval white men killing each other with swords and crossbows: this is about colonialism, and what happens when one people seeks to take from another. It’s about race, and the ways certain ethnicities are seen as somehow less than others. And it’s about women. There are very few men in sight in this novel, and that felt like breathing fresh air.
Touraine is the main character in this book. As we see most of the story through her eyes, and it just feels like her story. Clark tells the story in third person point of view. So the sections told from Luca’s perspective don’t feel out of place or awkward. By including Luca’s point of view, we get to see the rationale for the empire’s behaviour, and her steady change of opinions through her contact with Touraine.
Luca’s primary aim is to prove herself worthy of her throne, which her uncle currently occupies, waiting until she is ‘ready’ for power. Because of this, Luca only sees her own aims and wants. She doesn’t truly see what her and her people are doing to the colony they are occupying. By challenging Luca’s views, the book also challenges the wider system of colonialism, and the systemic power and privilege afforded to those of white western heritage.
I loved this aspect of The Unbroken – this is really what made it a five star read for me. I’ve read quite a bit of postcolonial literature in the last couple of years (thanks to my degree), and this is the first time I’ve read a fantasy novel that addresses these themes. And addresses them this well. Touraine, as a soldier conscripted as a child from her home, and trained to defend the empire, finds herself torn between the two sides.
Touraine and the other conscripts, the ‘Sands’, are almost like a third side in the battle. They don’t truly belong to either culture, and so they belong to each other. For different reasons, I related to this feeling of being in the middle, never quite sure who you are or where you belong. I felt for Touraine every step of the way. I felt her agonies, her pain, her divided loyalties and confusion as her thoughts and feelings changed.
Clark accomplishes the characterisation, description, and worldbuilding in The Unbroken in a masterful way. I almost felt as if I were standing in the deserts, feeling the heat, the sand between my toes, the heavy feeling as tensions grew in the city. Both Touraine and Luca felt like they could have been real people. The side characters were really well fleshed out as well. I definitely felt like Clark only showed us the tip of the iceberg with this world. I think there’s a lot more to come in the second book, especially with the magic system. Magic in The Unbroken builds up slowly. We learn about it in bits and pieces, and I think when Clarke reveals more later in the series, it’s going to be a really interesting magic system.
I found Luca to be a frustrating character. But I think that was the point. She does have a disability, which makes her unusual in a fantasy novel, and I think adds to the realism of the book. No one is perfect in The Unbroken. Characters continually make mistakes and poor choices. I really got the sense that they are just people muddling through, the same as the rest of us, with their biases and prejudices existing as a result of the culture they were born into and brought up in. Luca is the perfect example of this.
Whilst Luca doesn’t hold some of the more derogatory opinions of the other nobles, she doesn’t see the empire as doing anything wrong by colonising Touraine’s people. She simply sees it from the point of view of her own culture. It’s frustrating to read from the perspective of a character who you disagree with, and you ‘know’ is wrong. However, I think it’s also integral to the story to have her behave and think this way. She gives Touraine someone to get angry at, and through that anger, makes the point the story exists to serve: colonialism is wrong, it can never be justified.
The Unbroken also has a lot of queer representation. Both Luca and Touraine experience attractions/relationships with other women, and I think it’s implied that they are both bisexual. But it’s accepted in this world. It’s just normal. Even for Luca, the heir to the throne. I found this really refreshing. Whilst the ‘queer struggle’ story still has it’s place, as the world unfortunately still does not accept queer identities as normal, it’s nice that not every story has to be about that. In The Unbroken, the characters’ attractions are just part of them. They are not an ‘identity’ that the story centres around. Clark also writes a character with the ‘they’ pronoun later in the story, though Clark doesn’t give much information about them in this book. I assume Clark will explore the character more in the next book.
I have two little niggles with The Unbroken. Firstly, about two thirds of the way in I started to lose touch with Touraine’s motivations. I think when Clark picked the action up for the climax, the characterisation got lost a little bit lost. Touraine seemed to be making decisions without the explanations that Clark had given earlier in the book. I suspect this is linked to my other niggle, which is that towards the end I think the pacing picked up a bit too much: it felt too fast. So I wish it had slowed down a little at points to let us catch up with what Touraine was thinking and feeling.
I loved reading The Unbroken. It was a long read, but it held my attention. I can’t wait for the next book in the series.