The Unbroken – by C.L. Clark

The Unbroken had at first piqued my curiosity because of its topics – that is to say: colonialism and queer representation – so I surely didn’t complain when it was selected as last month’s read by one of book clubs I’m in. Unfortunately, an interesting subject alone a good novel does not make, and while I don’t like thrashing works whose heart seems to be in the right place, I really can’t pretend I enjoyed this book, nor can I find many positive qualities besides good intentions.

Title: The Unbroken

Author: C.L. Clark

Original Publisher: Orbit

Publication Date: 23 March 2021

Genre: Fantasy

Pages: 529

Standalone or Series: Magic Of The Lost #1

Synopsis: Stolen as a child by the empire that conquered her homeland, Touraine has been raised as a soldier, trained to be loyal to her masters and to her fellow conscripts. When her company is sent back to her homeland to stop a rebellion, she ends up being chosen by pricess Luca as a spy/cultural liaison/personal assistant to help her in her plans – to sway the rebels toward peace, and to get her hands on their forbidden magic.

Analysis: The story is told in thrid person through the alternate perspectives of Touraine and Luca. Its prose, I must say, betrays not only a lack of experience, but also some seriously insufficient editing. I didn’t keep track of all the awkward sentences and unsatisfying descriptions that litter the book, I’ll just quote as a significant example how a character introduces others by pointing “at Touraine, then the ass of a woman, and then the Brigani witch” – in a way that almost made me wonder if it was the ass, specifically, that was being singled out as a member of the Rebellion. Modern-days colloquial language is also mixed with made-up jargon, which is something I generally like if done well – that is to say, in a way that fits a properly built setting and a believable fantasy culture. As you might be suspecting, this is not the case here; characters continously use “sky-falling” as an interjection, but there’s no context for it – it’s not like the sky had any unusual value in their culture, or any myth revolved around the celestial sphere falling apart or anything, it’s just some lazy made-up idiom because, you know, fantasy.

The setting is heavily inspired to real-world colonialism, with the Empire of Balladaire and the fallen Shālan Empire being obvious stand-ins for France and North Africa respectively. While the parallelism may be simplistic and not especially inventive, I didn’t mind it in itself, since it provided enough framework to make our fictional world believable, at the same time raising some awareness on real historical power dynamics. When the worldbuilding departed from its real-world inspiration, however, its lack of depth revealed itself in all its frustrating magnitude. For instance, Luca occasionally refers to the Withering, some kind of plague that afflicts her homeland and that she hopes to cure once she gains access to magic; it’s one of her driving motivations, and one that’s obviously meant to humanise her craving for power; about the Withering itself, however, we get to learn almost nothing, even though it’s supposedly momentuous enough to condition the policies of an empire. Moreover, much of the conflict between the two clashing cultures revolves around their different attitude towards magic and religion; the latter, however, isn’t all that fleshed out; we know that devotion is the key to master magic powers, but in which other ways does religion shaped the Shālan Empire and its civilisation? As for Balladaire’s disdain for anything spiritual, it comes across very much as Flat-Earth Atheism – that is to say, staunch rationalism that’s entirely unjustified in a world where the supernatural is very much real and visible.

One theme that could’ve indeed been interesting is that of Touraine’s mixed loyalties; our main character, in fact, was brought up by a culture that does not accept her as her own, her siblings in arms are the closest thing she has to a family, and just when she’s starting questioning her belonging and inquiring on her roots, she’s thrown into the midst of a conflict where she could easily lose what little she holds dear. It could have been a fine topic – except, its entire potential is quickly invalidated and rendered shallow by having some of the stupidest protagonists I’ve ever seen in fiction. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for flawed characters making poor decisions, but there’s a line where stupidity stops being a realistic character trait, and instead starts hindering my suspensions of disbelief. Here, the entire plot relies on both Luca and Touraine making the most idiotic decisions in a way that defies common sense, and that’s often more convoluted than required. For instance, Touraine is assigned to her new mission after saving the princess and, immediately afterwards, being framed for murder and court-martialed. How does it make her a viable candidate for such a delicate task?! She could have easily been plucked from her ranks after her initial heroics, without portraying Luca as some reckless idiot who hands the destiny of her mission to a potential traitor. After which, Touraine does not just betrays such an ill-advised trust, but keeps on switching sides like a weathervane in the middle of a storm, with little understanding of any sort of consequence, to the point it’s hard to justify why anyone puts up with her anymore.

But I mentioned queer representation – what about that? Oh well, the setting seems to be queernorm, which admittedly is always nice, and some sexual tension is supposedly going on between the two protagonists. I’m saying “supposedly”, because their mutual attraction mainly exists in the eyes of other characters, who can’t stop shipping them for some reason, while between the two of them I could see no chemistry to speak of.

Conclusions: The Unbroken ended up being a disappointment with very little redeeming features. The subject had some potential, but it was entirely wasted due to its sloppy prose, unsatisfying worldbuilding, imbecile characters, and idiocy-driven plot. If I ever decide to read the next book of the series, it’ll be uniquely due to my neurotic completionism, as opposite to any genuine interest in the saga.

Content Warning: Violence – Death – Colonialism – Sexual Assault – Ableism

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