The Unbroken starts out extremely promisingly, telling the tale of Touraine, the young Qazali who was taken from her home as a kid and raised in the Balladairean empire as a member of the colonial forces, meant to be the first troops sent back to quell any uprisings in their land of birth. And here she is now, on a boat back to El Wast, a lieutenant in charge of troops known as Sands for their desert origin, accompanying Crown Princess Luca on a tour of her empire’s Qazali holdings.
But Luca has an ulterior motive: with her uncle on the throne as her (unwanted) regent, she wants to prove herself worthy of replacing him by investigating Qazali healing magic and finding a permanent solution for the deadly plagues that ravage Balladaire. Her own homeland has long since turned its back on magic and faith, considering both “uncivilized”, but Luca is convinced that her people will embrace any remedy that frees them from devastation, and by extension will embrace her own ascension to the throne.
When Touraine’s quick thinking saves Luca from an assassination attempt, the soldier comes to the princess’ attention. Needing a go-between who will prove acceptable to the local rebels as well as loyal to the Empire, Luca decides that Touraine perfectly fits the bill. Unfortunately, Touraine soon finds herself struggling with both attributes, betwixt and between dissonant aspects of her own identity.
This is such a fantastic premise, based on the French history of colonizing North Africa, and the first third or so is really gripping, compelling stuff. The almost out-of-body feeling Touraine has upon returning to her homeland is something I felt in my bones, as is the complicated relationship she has with colonial Balladaire, feeling both grateful to and resentful of it for all that it’s done to and for her. In this respect, it’s very much reminiscent of the excellent Baru Cormorant series it’s been compared with.
Unfortunately, the similarities end when it becomes disappointingly clear that Touraine is no Baru. Whereas Baru was often too clever for her own good, Touraine is very much not. Touraine has to make several hard choices — and with the first big one about the guns, I empathized, as that was not a clear line to navigate — but she keeps making progressively worse and worse choices as the narrative continues. It’s really hard to sympathize with a character who keeps doing dumb things. I was also less than thrilled with what seemed to me an inconsistency in the science of the book (ha! I’ve gotten really tetchy about science in speculative fiction recently) as it flip-flopped over whether Balladaire understood vaccines — tho perhaps that was just an error in the Advanced Reader’s Copy that has since been edited out in the finished product.
I did appreciate how C. L. Clark shows that choosing violence is almost always a race to the bottom. While I thought the ending somewhat unlikely, or at least too sudden to be likely, I am glad that Ms Clark hints at how unprepared the rebels are for what comes next. I’m curious to see if she’ll explore the workings of government from there on in, both in Qazal and Balladaire. I’ll probably read the next book, but am not looking forward to it with any great enthusiasm.
The Unbroken by C. L. Clark was published March 23 2021 by Orbit Books and is available from all good booksellers, including
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