The Unbroken by C. L. Clarke is the debut novel in a new fantasy series. It follows Touraine, a slave, a soldier. She was stolen from her homeland and trained within the colonial culture to be a soldier. To be disposable. She wants to be accepted the colonial culture, to receive the respect and power that acceptance holds. But, she and the rest of the colonial brigade are sent back to her homeland, to the rebelling colony, and all of her plans and ideals are stolen away.
The other POV character is Luca, the princess who should be queen. She’s been sent to manage the colony, to bring it back under order, as proof of her ability to lead. Meanwhile, her uncle holds the throne.
Thank you Orbit and Netgalley for the opportunity to read an e-arc of The Unbroken ahead of its release on March 23rd!
The story is slow to start. We spend a lot of time getting into the heads of the characters and understanding their roles and positions within their society before the main story begins. But, once the action starts, it doesn’t stop.
This was a middling book for me. While I enjoyed some elements and the story overall, there were a lot of things I didn’t enjoy.
The world is interesting and has a detailed setting. However, the setting did feel flat at times. More like a backdrop than a real, living world. It is a city past it’s prime as colonizers and colonized clash. While the empire extends far past the reaches of the city, we don’t get to see or hear much of the world past the city gate. This is, of course, only book one of the series, so we may see more later.
There are also interesting magic systems. Magic systems that Luca wants access to, but cannot. We get to see and understand some of the magic systems at a surface level, but I think we will get deeper into them in the following books. This is a little disappointing, as I would have liked a bit more detail in this book.
Overall, the worldbuilding is what I would expect from the debut book of a series where a lot of the ideas introduced will be expanded on later in the series.
My key problems with the book mainly involved the romantic elements and Luca as a character.
While Touraine and Luca had moments of sexual tension, I can’t really see where Touraine’s eventual soft spot for Luca comes from. There is a huge power imbalance between the characters, and while I can overcome some power imbalances in fiction, we are talking about the future queen of an entire empire and a slave.
The slave owner/slave romance is a literary device that, in other books, is often used to make slave owners and colonizers overall look like better people based on one “kind” person, and to invalidate discussions of inequality. This isn’t necessarily the case with The Unbroken, but I have already seen a number of people romanticizing Touraine and Luca’s relationship.
Luca does eventually free Touraine. But, Touraine still exists in a system and a world wherein the dominant colonial culture will never accept her as free. And Luca freeing one slave, doesn’t mitigate the fact that she still relies on slavery outside of Touraine. Her empire is built on slavery and colonization. She even says that the empire would fall apart if they started actually treating their colonial subjects as people.
Touraine understands and acknowledges the power imbalance. She admits her attraction to Luca is based on the power she wields and the opportunities it provides. Touraine knows she can never truly consent because of this. But Luca doesn’t recognize the power that she holds. Luca constantly makes herself into a victim, often for reasons I can’t go into without revealing the plot.
When Touraine has fond thoughts about Luca toward the end of the book I was honestly confused as to where they had come from. Her attraction to Luca seemed sexual at most. Not to mention that as the story goes on, Luca continuously makes decisions that hurt Touraine, hurt the people that Touraine cares about, and eventually are specifically designed to hurt Touraine.
And Luca. Oh Luca. I don’t know if there is a POV character in a book who I have disliked as intensely as her. Part of it is because I know people IRL who are exactly like her. She always plays herself as the victim. She is consistently hypocritical and racist. Her characterizations makes perfect sense within the colonial context of the story.
But, I already understand how colonizers and racists justify their actions. How they take one step forward and two steps back. My main problem with her as a POV character is that I know there are already people who sympathize with her character. Who buy into the idea that she is trying her best. And I hate that. I hate that people can look at a colonial ruler, overlook all of the harm that they cause (whether fictional or not), and like them. Luca doesn’t learn, doesn’t change, and perpetuates the beliefs of her empire. In fact, Luca gets worse as the book goes on. she makes more detrimental choices.
I understood Luca’s attraction and feelings toward Touraine better than the opposite. Touraine has opened up a different point of view. Touraine has introduced a spark of something new and different into Luca’s world. But, Touraine is still more of a tool than a person for her. Luca’s actions throughout the story focus on Touraine. Her side of the relationship is clear, but I just didn’t see the same from Touraine.
And, like, I think I would have had less problems with Luca if there hadn’t been the romantic undercurrent. Because Touraine’s feelings about Luca inform the reader’s opinions of Luca. Despite everything, despite the lack of real romantic connection, Touraine still harbours positive feelings toward Luca. And I just can’t handle it.
Of course, this is realistic. Our relationships with people aren’t black and white. Our relationships with the sociopolitical sphere and the dominant culture we exist within aren’t simple. For me, the romantic spark between the characters isn’t there, but the story relies on that connection in order for Touraine’s feelings to be understandable.
Anyway. Despite what I have written, I think this is still a book that a lot of people will enjoy. It triggers a lot of issues for me, but that isn’t going to be the case for everyone. But, I just want to encourage you to read critically. Not just with this book, but in general. Because when you read critically you start to see how certain narratives appear frequently. How certain ideas can be perpetuated by a work that is trying to combat them. How the narratives we read can become present in our own work. We all write in a space that exists within the dominant culture.