Friday, April 2, 2021

Book Review: The Unbroken by C.L. Clark (fantasy)

The Unbroken
Author: C.L. Clark 
Publication Date: March 23 2021
Publisher: Orbit
Genres: Epic Fantasy
Sexualities: Straight, Lesbian

If you're expecting this to be a typical fantasy where the heroine miraculously brings together opposing sides through the love of friends and family, then you're in for a rude awakening. The Unbroken is a brutally honest look at all the ugliness of colonialism, rebellion, racism. It's a story about not even knowing which side you're supposed to be on, much less which side to choose. It's so good, so unexpectedly tragic in every way, that I was left speechless as I turned the final page.

C.L. Clark explores the clash of cultures and empires through Touraine, a soldier taken from her home so long ago she no longer recognizes it as home. She's come to identify with the Balladairan captors who erased her culture and trained and educated her to like them even though she'll never be accepted as one of them. She's loyal to the Empire, but her love is for the Sands, her fellow conscripts from the conquered desert colonies. Coming back to Qazāl reopens old wounds for all of them, testing sympathies and highlighting inequalities as they're forced to take up arms against their own people.

Fittingly, for a book that's all about women, a book in which nearly all of the leadership roles are filled by women, a book in which women-loving-women is the predominant relationship on display, it's only fitting that the overarching conflict is represented by four women  - Touraine, Pruett, General Cantic, and Princess Luca (actually, there's a fifth, but to talk of her would be to wade deep into spoilers). Pruett is a soldier of the Sands and a lover to Touraine, a woman whose own loyalties are cleaner and simpler, and whose love tugs hard at Touraine's loyalties. Cantic is the woman who trained the Sands, a mother figure and a mentor, whose loyalties are muddied at best, and whose influence over Touraine further clouds her loyalties. Princess Luca embodies the Balladairan empire, a woman who has come to Qazāl to end the rebellion and take their magic, a woman who raises Touraine above her station, and whose affections strain not just loyalty but identity. 

Balladaire was a land of gifts and punishments, honey and whips, devastating mercies.

The Unbroken is divided into four parts, and each of them pivots on a twist of love and loyalty for Touraine. I don't know that I've ever read a book with such a conflicted heroine, a story that piles on so many jaw-dropping, stomach-churning twists. It's hard to read at times, and Touraine is often hard to like. She's selfish in many ways, and has something of a savior complex compounded by imposter syndrome. We sympathize with her, we absolutely do, and we feel her pains as if they were our own, but she makes pivotal choices for all sides of the conflict without thinking them through. She's a product of her Balladairan upbringing, tempered by her love for the Sands, and challenged by this newfound sense of home, and Clark captures all the depths of psychological horror and emotional torture that represents.

It would be impossible to fix every betrayal on her shoulders. Too many of them were contradictory.

Even though this is fantasy, the simmering tension and spark of rebellion in Qazāl is all too familiar. It's about fighting for one's home, pushing back those who would erase your history, your religion, your culture, and your very identity. The faces of the rebellion are a mixed bunch, some more or less likable than others, but we understand their struggle. What makes it all so difficult to digest is that there's no clear sense of evil to the struggle, no one hero or one villain, just a lot of people from different cultures and backgrounds with what they believe to be good intentions. Color, race, and religion are all a part of the conflict, but they're secondary to the fact of a large empire conquering and colonizing its neighbors. While it becomes easier to choose sides as the story moves on, but I dare say it never becomes more comfortable.

The Unbroken is brilliant in its brutality. It's a book that makes you think and feel, a story you're almost forced to take part in. While I loved the ending and thought Clark did a fabulous job of bringing closure to so much conflict, the epilogue leaves me torn. It almost feels as if it undermines the struggle and the sacrifice, opening a door to a more typical fantasy resolution, but knowing how many times this twisted and pivoted, I'm anxious to see what's next.

Rating: ♀ ♀ ♀ ♀ 

My sincere thanks to the publisher for author me an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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