Title: The Unbroken
Author: C. L. Clark
Publication date: March 23, 2021
Genre: Fantasy, LGBTQ
One Sentence Summary: Though Qazāli, Touraine was taken as a child to be raised and trained to be a soldier in Balladaire and is now being sent back to Qazāl with others like her, right into the heart of a brewing rebellion that will have all of them torn between loyalties to blood and crown.
I’ve seen The Unbroken on many anticipated reads lists (I’d been looking forward to reading it as well) for good reason. This book features an incredible North African-inspired world, a clash been worship of gods and worship of no gods, the effects of colonialism, a rebellion, a main character with torn loyalties, and more. This book really packs in it and manages to explore all of it. The Unbroken is, in many ways, an astounding book, though I also found myself wanting a bit more.
A Complex Story That’s Also Easy to Read
As a young child, Touraine was taken from her home in Qazāl to be raised and trained to be a soldier in Balladaire, the country that invaded and colonized Qazāl. All she knew was Balladaire and all she wanted was to rise to the rank of General. She worshiped General Cantic, who trained her all her life. But, when she arrives in Qazāl and manages to save the Balladairan princess’s life, she attracts notice, and is identified by a rebel, tearing her loyalties between blood and crown.
Princess Luca is the rightful ruler of Balladaire, but, after her parents died from the Withering plague, her uncle pushed her over and took the crown. In order for her to prove her worthiness, she must quell the rebellion in Qazāl and bring the colonies to heel. Luca, though, wants to do things her own way and make both parties happy. To do that, she needs someone she can trust and someone the rebels can trust.
With their stories inextricably twined together, Touraine and Luca discover there’s far more at play in the colonies, far more unrest, and threatens to tear them apart just as they’re starting to care for each other.
Whew! The Unbroken is quite a book. But it’s so incredibly easy to read, so easy to just fly through the pages. It’s like sand falling through an hourglass. The story just flows and drags the reader along with it. There were so many times I was sucked in and so many times I couldn’t believe just how much I had read. For a story that really packs it in, it goes by in the blink of an eye.
The story is complex. There are about a million things going on, but it’s also really easy to keep track of it all. Touraine and Luca were the perfect characters to carry it all off, to expose all the secrets and machinations for the reader. Still, there were some unknowns, but that just heightened the mystery of what, exactly, was going on and what was going to come next. There were so many times I was wrong, so many times I was surprised. The one thing I didn’t like was that Touraine always seemed to be thrown out, cast aside, and set upon her own path. It did feel the plot was being a little heavy handed with her as she could have just walked right off the pages at so many different times, but the story always turned her back.
The other thing that bothered me was that I felt like I was missing out on something. I felt that a lot of really interesting things were happening off the pages. I don’t know if it was because other characters were handling those things or because it was left of intentionally, but I felt a lot of fascinating events and machinations were off page. There were leaps between chapters where things started to get really interesting and then the next chapter would jump to something else. Still, there’s enough of what is on the pages to keep readers interested. While more of a political intrigue novel, there’s still a lot of action.
Overall, The Unbroken is an incredible, wide ranging story that touches on so many things. It showcased how colonization affects the colonized country and its people, creating the perfect kind of tension for this story. There are clear social classes, as well as interesting crosses between the boundaries. I loved the magic system that drew an even greater divide between Qazāl and Balladaire, and how it played out before Touraine’s eyes. This story is intricate and is definitely balancing a lot of things, but not a single thing falls over, not a single thing is extraneous. It all came together beautifully for an incredible story that is both the start of a series (of which I have no clue where it’s headed) and a standalone fantasy.
A Story of Two Women
While there are a number of characters, ranging from Touraine’s fellow conscripts to Luca’s guards to the rebels, The Unbroken is told by Touraine and Luca. I really enjoyed getting the story from a woman who had been stolen from her homeland and a woman who wanted her crown more than anything.
The characters were all amazing and came to life to me. I could feel Luca’s desperation, Touraine’s crisis of identity, the rebels’ desperation, and the bloodthirstiness of General Cantic. No matter how little or how much a character was seen, they each had unique personalities that easily set them apart. That isn’t to say I didn’t mix up some of the more minor characters, but, by the end, I knew who was who.
I really liked Touraine, but I also really wanted to like her more. She was something of a lost soul. I liked that she thought she had found her place, found her career path, but that the veil keeping her naive and loyal was ripped away. She was faced early on with coming to terms with who she was and who she wanted to be. Much of the story was devoted to her development and changes as the story unraveled around her. At the same time, I felt like she was kind of all over the map. Her loyalties kept shifting, her ideas kept changing. Though I did love that, once she had decided, she was committed.
I had similar feelings about Luca, though she felt a little more stable than Touraine. She had her goal in sight the whole time and was willing to try as many avenues as possible to get what she wanted. Despite her disability, she’s sharp and smart. She was caught just as Touraine was between Balladaire and the rebels, but she always maintained an eye on her goal. I liked how she was often unsettled by the things she had to do, the things she had no power over, but, though it all, she proved herself a princess, if not a future queen.
The setting is what really drew me to The Unbroken. Set in Northern Africa, I didn’t really know much beyond that. I suppose I was thinking Egypt and Morocco as I’m embarrassingly not familiar with African geography. But then the bits of French thrown into the story kind of threw me, until I was watching Jeopardy! and there was a clue about the French colonizing Algeria. Then I was thinking Algeria, but kept thinking Tunisia fit better (not that I know anything of either country, but I just kept thinking Tunisia while reading).
The entire story is set in Qazāl, though both Touraine and Luca had flashbacks to what life had been like in Balladaire for them. It was fascinating to see how different it was, drawing a sharp difference between the green and tree-filled Balladaire with the deserts of Qazāl.
I loved everything about Qazāl. It felt dusty and brown, very apt for a desert. But there were also various kinds of dress and references to particular animals that helped bring the African feel to life. Yet, it’s stark and has an unwelcoming streak. There’s a culture clash between the Qazāli and the Balladairians so it also has a very militaristic feel to it. The magic was also quite unique, and the ideas around it created a further divide between the two countries, as well as fear in Touraine. But my favorite part was that it was explored by two people who shed new eyes on it, one of whom who had never been there and the other who had been taken from it while very young. They came to Qazāl with very different ideas and were affected by it in different ways, so it was interesting to see the world for what it was and then get a veil drawn down as the reader sees it through either Touraine’s or Luca’s eyes.
An Incredible Start to a New Fantasy Series
Seriously, The Unbroken has so many elements in it that it’s impossible to explore all of them without writing endlessly. All of it is deftly handled and woven in absolutely perfectly. I loved the characters, I adored the world, and I was intrigued by the story. I do wish more of the most interesting events had happened on the pages as I felt a little left out sometimes, but, what was on the pages, was really interesting and served to further developed the characters and the story. Overall, reading The Unbroken was a delightful experience and I can’t wait to find out what happens next.
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Thank you to Angela Man at Orbit for a review copy. All opinions expressed are my own.