The Unbroken has been receiving so much hype in my circles, and I can see why! Unfortunately, though, it wasn’t quite my cup of tea…
Book: The Unbroken by CL Clark
Publication date: 23rd March 2021
Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by Orbit Books. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: violence, injury, and death, including amputation and major character death; several scenes of hanging; genocide; cultural erasure, and violent and non-violent colonialism; children stolen from families; racism; ableism; past attempted rape, threats of rape, threats of torture.
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.
This is a textbook case of me not being the right reader for this book. The Unbroken deserves all of the praise it’s getting for being an incisive, intense look at the brutalities of colonialism, and for its gritty, realistic military/espionage style – however, that just isn’t something I enjoy in fantasy. I’m not in any way saying that fantasy shouldn’t look long and hard at the monarchies and empires it’s so often centred in, but personally I prefer that interrogation to still come with the trappings of magic and wonder. There is some magic in The Unbroken, but for various slightly spoilery reasons it’s almost never used on page, and it’s very small in scale (healing, mostly). You could easily have substituted medicine/science for it in the plot without any real changes. I’ve tried low fantasy again and again, whenever my friends all fall in love with a book, and every time I fail to enjoy the book. I don’t hugely enjoy excessive violence and grimness, and so often ‘realism’ in fantasy means horrific injuries and endless misery for most characters. I can handle it if there’s other things going on – the gore in Soulkeeper is balanced by a sense of hope and a lot of cool magic; the brutality of The Poppy War has a compelling protagonist, interesting structure, and again, cool magic; recently, the romance arc pulled me through the ubiquitous violence in The Wolf and the Woodsman. In The Unbroken, the misery and ugliness is the story, and that just doesn’t work for me. The unrelenting bleakness of it all left me unengaged without something else to latch on to, and I seriously considered DNFing it at the halfway mark.
Luca’s struggles to be a better, kinder, fairer ruler than her predecessors is what should have pulled me into this book – I’ve talked extensively in other reviews about how much I adore stories of people thrust onto the throne and having to sort out the practical issues of their country while navigating pre-existing politics. However, I felt like there really was minimal statecraft here, despite there being frequent mentions of different theories of rule; I was excited when Luca picked up a book called ‘The Rule of Rule’, but she didn’t spend much time actually doing anything. I expect it’s intentional that Luca feels like she’s flailing around, making decisions that seem to have no forethought behind them in order to show how detached she is from the real state of things in Qazal, but it made it very difficult to believe in what she was doing. I don’t mean it made it me dislike her (I did dislike her, and that’s fine in the context of the book), but more that I couldn’t believe she was raised to do this. To me, she felt flat and I could never get a handle on her thought processes, even though she’s a viewpoint character. It seemed to me like she was pretty much there only to depict how out of touch colonisers are, which is fine for a minor character, but she’s meant to be the deuteragonist. I just hated how one note she was. She’s also disabled, with restricted use of her legs after an accident, but again I wanted so much more of how this affected her. It’s mentioned a few times but almost dismissed a lot of the time, barring a very basic ‘she wants to appear strong despite her disability’ trait.
Touraine is a far more compelling protagonist, but she is also frustrating to follow as she never has a handle on the situation. I completely lost track of who was betraying whom at one point, and I think that this is partly down to Touraine often feeling like she’s one step behind the key players trying to manipulate her. I enjoyed her most when she was at rest, which is not a great thing for a main character who’s driving the action. However, in a cast filled with characters who can seem like stereotypes (the mysterious woman from a nomad tribe, the no-nonsense soldier pals, the cruel-but-effective general) Touraine definitely stands out as the most interesting and nuanced, and this is very much the tale of her self-discovery as she unpicks her internalised racism and realises the damage done by her upbringing. It would have been very interesting to have the whole book from her perspective alone, I think – her journey is fascinating and it would perhaps have been more rewarding with a tighter focus on her.
A quick note on the romance, since this book is being heavily promoted as f/f – there was almost none! Both Touraine and Luca are queer, and there is an abundance of other major and minor queer characters in a queernorm world, so that was amazing (especially in a world which is otherwise so bleak!), but in terms of an actual romance thread I thought it was sadly lacking. There’s a lot of mutual ogling, but very little actual interaction, which leads to some of the decisions made feeling a bit weird to me. I appreciate the power dynamic makes this an uncomfortable relationship, so I’m actually glad there wasn’t more romance, I just wanted to address it as I’m seeing a lot of people hyped for it as an f/f romance. It’s wonderfully casually queer, though, which is both delightful and highly important.
This is one of those books where I end up in the awkward position of recommending it even though I didn’t enjoy it. It’s got a powerful message and it’s great to see the fantasy community embracing this important dissection of its roots in empire, so I wish it every success. It truly is a case of me being the wrong reader for this, and I think if you do like your fantasy gritty and low magic, this will be a huge hit. For me, it gets three out of five cats, but I expect many readers will love it so much more!