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The Unbroken coverBefore we get down to the business of reviewing what is, by all accounts, a worthy and thought-provoking novel, let us first take a moment to consider some arms. Specifically, let us consider the arms of main character Touraine, as depicted in all their stunning glory by artist Tommy Arnold on the front cover of this novel. This cover art, with the bare, well-defined arms of its protagonist stretched between the pillars of an ornate doorway, was powerful enough to get its own Twitter hashtag and photo campaign on launch. Sure, that's partly because there is a loud and wonderful corner of Twitter full of often thirsty sapphic SFF fans who were ready to talk about this novel regardless, and that's something that should be celebrated. But it's also because the cover of The Unbroken, with its battered yet defiant Black woman hero staring down at the reader, is one of the most compelling packages I've ever seen for a fantasy novel. It makes such strong promises: the promise that this is far from another Eurocentric fantasy, the promise of a powerful central character who goes through trials but retains her dignity, and the promise that said character is going to do some cool and possibly sexy things with her excellent biceps. It's a fantastic cover, and even before I metaphorically open the book and talk about the contents of The Unbroken, it demands to be admired.

But I'm not really here to get thirsty about cover art, so let's move on. The Unbroken draws heavily on the colonial history of France and North Africa to create Qazāl, a nation once part of the Shalan Empire but now a key province in the empire of Balladaire, which has subjugated and partially settled Qazāl and outlawed its religious practices and the magic that comes with them. One of Balladaire's colonial practices is to steal children from different parts of its empire and raise them as indoctrinated soldiers, creating a Colonial Brigade of “Sands” who are conscripted into unpaid service in order to repay the Empire for their educations, while still being heavily discriminated against by the rest of the Balladairan armed forces. Enter Touraine: a native Qazāli who has risen to the rank of Lieutenant and has ambitions to rise even further within the army's ranks, she has proven herself equal to the Balladairans around her and achieved what, to her, would be equality by assimilating fully into the Empire that has raised her. When Touraine's brigade are deployed to El-Wast, the capital of Qazāl, it is her first visit to her birthplace in twenty years; her plans for a straightforward deployment are quickly thrown off track when she is recognised by a dissident she is in the process of executing, and is then framed for a murder by an abusive senior officer trying to get her out of the way.

Touraine's counterpoint is Luca, a Balladairan princess who has effectively been usurped by her regent Uncle. She is therefore now looking to Qazāl to help her prove her worth to the throne. As a dispossessed, underdog heir who has found ways to fight despite a physical disability (she has a severely weakened leg and chronic pain due to a childhood accident)—and has had to play off older and more experienced political actors against each other—Luca would be the undisputed protagonist of many other fantasy novels. In The Unbroken, however, we are never allowed to forget that her aim is to maintain an exploitative colonial structure, and this has fascinating effects on our expectations. Luca quickly finds allies within Balladaire's colonial elite in El-Wast, but she realises that in order to maintain power, she needs to find a way to infiltrate Qazāl's rebel movement and take them down.

The Unbroken revolves in large part around the relationship between Touraine and Luca, which is not so much an “enemies to lovers” story as it is a tale of “enemies to enemies.” When Touraine ends up on the wrong side of military discipline, Luca brings her on as a personal guard, seeing Touraine's potential both as a political symbol and a double agent. Touraine is thus taken from her rigid, basic military life into the luxury of Luca's; dressed up and brought to parties as a political symbol; and sent off into the city to make contact with the rebels. For Touraine, cut off from her entire support structure within the Sands—and with her modest, good-colonial-citizen dreams in tatters—moving between the colonial elite and the rebels means interacting with two groups of people who distrust and despise her for the simple fact of who she is.

The rebels, on the other hand, offer Touraine the possibility of reconnecting with a family and culture that Balladaire separated her from, including its magic, as well as the chance of freedom for both herself and the rest of the Sands (many of whom, it must be noted, are well ahead of Touraine when it comes to rebellion politics). But Touraine is, of course, a soldier indoctrinated by a highly effective colonial power, whose friends are still at the mercy of that power, and who is now in thrall to a woman who embodies some of the most attractive aspects of that power (and is a total hottie). Her growing sympathies for the rebellion are reflected in her actions, certainly; but so too are her considerations of how to protect the Sands from the effects of the rebellion, as well as a deeply rooted assumption that the Empire, and Luca herself, will offer fairness and stability despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Touraine's choices change depending on which of these conflicting ideals and loyalties are uppermost in her mind, driving the narrative of The Unbroken forward through multiple twists and turns. Some of her choices are utterly disastrous, and it can be hard as a reader not to be frustrated when she fails to recognise how little Balladaire cares about Qazāl's interests. Her route to falling in with the rebellion is slow. But, like Luca, Touraine is very far from being a straightforward version of her character archetype.

When we talk about what makes modern epic fantasy good, we are likely to point to the depiction of intricate political systems and ensuing moral complexity for which the genre offers space. Of course, there are plenty of stories out there that hinge on simple generalisations, where good kingdoms fight against evil kingdoms and nobody worries too much about why there's a whole kingdom of evil (or whether monarchy is a morally justifiable system in the first place). On the whole, though, readers go into contemporary epic fantasy expecting at least some level of complexity or nuance: yes, we might be rooting for one polity over another, but we accept that the other side has coherent and interesting motives, and that things might not be entirely rosy among the “good” side either; or we may follow protagonists on multiple sides of a conflict, in which case the most satisfying narrative outcome might be a political resolution that leaves nobody victorious.

On the one hand, centring colonialism within a fantasy narrative calls into question the need to ensure nuance, because to anyone with a functioning moral compass in the twenty-first century there is a clear good/bad dichotomy when portraying one nation colonising another, and the other attempting to resist. Yes, there are some objectionable people among the Qazāli and some sympathetic ones among the Balladairans; yes, there are some heinous acts committed by the rebels; but they don't match up to the scale of atrocity committed by Balladaire against Qazāl and its other colonies. In one scene, one of the rebels with whom Touraine has a particular connection takes her to the unofficial “monument” for all the Qazāli children stolen by Balladaire: a field full of unmarked rocks, each one moved there by a member of the child's family to mark their disappearance. The visual is striking on its own, but seeing it through Touraine's eyes, and watching her make the discovery that she herself is represented by one of those stones—seeing her realise what that means for the people who put it there—makes for an incredibly powerful scene that underscores the loss and inhumanity of occupation.

However, while the reader is unlikely to be conflicted about whether Qazāl deserves freedom from occupation, the characters trying to navigate those political waters are another matter. As noted, both Touraine and Luca's roles in The Unbroken grate against the expectations that come with their archetypes, and the effect of this is almost a challenge to the reader: think about what these characters are doing and how you feel about it, because the book itself isn't going to offer any easy answers. As an overall antagonistic force with sympathetic motivations, Luca is an interesting example of this approach: I read The Unbroken in an unofficial book group with some other reviewers, and our discussion basically revolved around when different people reached the “fuck Luca” moment, the point at which someone decided they had no sympathy left for her. For some people, this came about five pages into the chapter in which she was introduced, whereas others maintained some degree of sympathy for her to the end; but the variety of reactions was notable, and underscored just how much nuance Clark builds into a novel which might have taken a clearer-cut approach [1].

Figuring out how to feel about Touraine is, in some ways, easier: she's a victim of horrible circumstances who needs a hug, a good therapist, and a break from all of the responsibilities that have been thrust upon her. However, Touraine's terrible decisions, coupled with her unique ability to move between the Balladairan forces and the Qazāli rebels to keep making terrible decisions, directly lead to a lot of The Unbroken's hardest conflicts. It's a disservice to the complexity of her character and motives to believe that Touraine is thrown the “idiot ball” (i.e. that the plot requires her to be uncharacteristically stupid at key moments, so that bad decisions can make more plot happen), but it's nevertheless hard to watch some of her challenges play out. The Unbroken's narrative neither excuses her mistakes nor puts her through excessive punishment for them: terrible things happen, caused by a character who wants to do the right thing and has been given the worst possible upbringing to make the choices she needs to, and everyone else adapts their plans accordingly and factors her right back in.

In short, what a reader is getting with The Unbroken is not an epic fantasy that plays by the rules, but one that succeeds in putting engaging, subversive characters in the places they need to be to cause the best kind of dramatic mayhem. As a debut novel, The Unbroken isn't flawless: the pacing is a little odd around the midpoint and ending, and I was led to expect a little more “lovers” in the “enemies to lovers” dynamic between Touraine and Luca than I ended up getting. But what it does to absolute perfection is be interesting: in its worldbuilding, in its range of characters, and particularly in its indifference to reader expectations. Come for the biceps, stay for the complex colonial uprising: you won't be disappointed.


[1] (For the record, and for those who have read the novel, my “fuck Luca” came at the bit with the cartoons.) [return]

Adri is a semi-aquatic mammal currently living in the UK, where she divides her spare time between reading, interacting with dogs, and making resolutions about doing more baking. She is a regular contributor at Nerds of a Feather, Flock Together and can also be found at Adri's Book Reviews or on Twitter at adrijjy.
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