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26 March 2021

#Blogtour #Review - The Unbroken by CL Clark

The Unbroken (Magic of the Lost: Book One)
C L Clark
Orbit, 25 March 2021
Available as: PB, 528pp, e, audio
Source: ARC provided by the publisher
ISBN (PB): 9780356516233

I'm grateful to Orbit for an advance review copy of The Unbroken and to Tracy at Compulsive Readers for inviting me to take part in the blogtour for this book.

Well. What can I say about this one?

I really love it when an author turns a genre inside out. That's so much more fun. And C L Clark's The Unbroken does just that, using military fantasy (and this is great military fantasy!) to critique Empire through an unwavering lens of post-colonialism. 

And it's glorious to read.

The book starts as it continues, with ACTION. Lieutenant Touraine, of the Balladarian Colonial Brigade, is coming home to Qazāl for the first time in twenty years. But it's not a happy homecoming. Seized as a child when Balladairian Empire invaded and defeated her homeland, she's been raised to serve in their army, albeit in the despised Brigade. The "Sands" get rags for uniforms, old weapons and they aren't even issued firearms until battle looms. Nevertheless, it's given Touraine a home, a family of sorts, and a purpose. The Sands may be the lowest of the low, cannon fodder, outsiders, but they're useful cannon fodder, and as long as she was fighting against other downtrodden, outcast peoples, Touraine could endure that.

Now, though, she will have to think about where her loyalties really lie - caught between the soi-disant "civilised" Balladarians, who hate and look down on her and her comrades, seeing them as savages, and the Qazāli locals, who... hate and look down on her and comrades, seeing them as traitors.

The situation in Qazāl is tense, with rebellion brewing, and on the ship together with Touraine and her mates is Princess Luca, heir to the Empire. Luca has come to make a name for herself, so that her uncle will have to give up the throne on which he's sitting as "Regent". Disabled and scholarly, Luca is very different from Touraine but perhaps they both feel they have something to prove: for Luca, Qazāl is at best an arena, a place to show off what she can achieve.

The lives of the two women are entwined in this bustling, visceral and truly epic fantasy.

The Unbroken has, as I said, a strong start, but there's plenty of drama action right through. It's a milieu that suits Touraine, less so Luca, and they're not destined to have either a steady or an easy time. There are plots, both from the rebels and among the Balladarian elite; Touraine begins to think she sees echoes of her own past in the faces around her; Luca has designs on ancient magic which she believes will help establish her claim to the Empire and always, always there is tension, there is the rotten stink of oppression and appropriation, there is the stewing wrongness that is empire. Ballardaire (its culture is portrayed as vaguely French) is a cruel master to its conquered peoples, and the Qazāli, heirs to a shattered but proud culture, really suffer.

It would be understandable if this led to a story with a very unnuanced, clearcut morality. But Clark doesn't generally draw such bright lines. There are a couple of characters who are painted as out-and-out villains (Touraine's Nemesis Captain Rogan, for example, or the Comte de Beau-Sang whose favourite recreation is removing fingers from servants he wishes to punish). But they are rather the exception. In contrast, Clark creates, for example, in Luca a splendidly complex personality. 

Luca is a woman of contradictions. For her Qazāl is a tool, a means to an end, and at times she seems indifferent to what happens to it so long as it serves her purpose. But she is aware enough to see the reality and to recognise that compromise may be needed. it is, though, the compromise of the traditional reformer, as frustrated at the extremist faction among the rebels as she is Beau-Sang and his ilk, and it is compromise with a. purpose - the elevation of Luca. The fact that purpose is more about her own role in the world and less about the idea of "Empire" doesn't really distinguish her from her exploitative compatriots - it's only their methods that differ.

Luca seems capable of being moved to compassion and she tries to improve conditions, opening channels to the rebels (it all ends in tears). She might even, she hints, be willing to give up the colony - if she can get her throne. This obsession leads her into ever darker and more baroque schemes, schemes in which Touraine, already confused and rootless, becomes completely enmeshed. 

Touraine, also, is in morally grey territory. What loyalty, really, does she owe a nation whose language she has forgotten? What loyalty does she owe and empire that enslaved here? Bewildered, and feeling the strongest attachment to he comrades in the Brigade (which is what military training is designed to achieve) Touraine wavers, unsure what to do for the best. 

And then a personal element arises between the two women - in a culture that is totally comfortable with same-sex and bisexuality - despite the differences in rank (in case it wasn't clear above, Touraine, as a conscript, is something close to a slave). Clark layers a whole complex of desire and guilt and constraint between over the already ferociously difficult politics and personal loyalties.

There are just SO MANY CONTRADICTIONS in this book. Or do I mean COMPLICATIONS? Luca is reticent to take things too far, spotting, correctly, how little say (none) Touraine has in what might happen. It is VERY will-they, won't-they at times - then something else will happen that blows everything up, the pieces falling where they will, the two women drawn together and repelled from each other at the same time. Touraine, an experienced and capable officer but in many ways vulnerable, is torn in different directions by competing loyalties, by desire, by her family's past.  Luca is just - well, on one level she thinks a lot of herself, at another she's a little girl missing her parents (they both died in a plague).

It's the kind of book where you want to whisper, no shout, advice at the characters. Both women make some terrible mistakes, which, in the way of things, others generally suffer for. It's an unforgiving situation, with other figures - the rebels, ramrod straight General Cantic, the colonial gentry, various shady factions of priests and fanatics - watching from the shadows, always ready to pounce.

It is, basically, a glorious, many layered and chewy book where nobody is really right, or not for long, the next death is always close and the stakes get higher and higher. It has one of the most nail-biting climaxes I've seen in any genre for a long time. And, while "Book One" suggests sequels, there is also a rare sense of completion and accomplishment to the end of The Unbroken, rather than an abrupt stop where the story was sliced off for the another book.

This is definitely one not to miss. 

You can buy The Unbroken from your local bookshop (if they're doing click and collect), or online from Bookshop, Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyle's, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

For more information about The Unbroken, see the Orbit website here. Or browse the stops on the blogtour - see below for details.


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