Tough, beautiful, and strong enough to carry an entire trilogy – but enough about Touraine’s arms. The Unbroken is the magnificent military fantasy debut from C L Clark, and the first instalment in the forthcoming Magic of the Lost series. This was my return to that old love of mine, the doorstopper book, after weeks of novellas no thicker than my fingernail.
We begin with Touraine, a conscripted Lieutenant as she and her company of fellow conscripted Sands are brought in by their commanding kingdom, Balladaire, to help quell the Qazali rebellion stirring in the land they were taken from as children. That sentence enough should be enough to get you to read this book, but I’ll continue regardless. We watch as Touraine builds an unlikely relationship of uncertain nature with Princess Luca, the disabled heir apparent to the Balladairian throne who is struggling to keep her meddlesome uncle from taking the throne himself.
Moonlight glinted on the general’s bloody sword as she raised it high for another killing blow
Clark interrogates the Qazali diaspora with finesse and an attention to emotional detail. Qazal is based on Clark’s time in Morocco, and their studious prose brings this world to life wonderfully. The relationship between Touraine and Luca, and all the dynamics therein, are explored deftly as we see the world from both women’s points of view, although the plot never allows those feelings to quite bubble over, so in that sense it is an entirely accurate portrayal of gay longing. There’s also an older queer couple who I adore, great mother-daughter relationships, and a very cool non-binary minor character who I hope will get a bigger role in the sequels.
It brutally portrays and considers the effects of colonialism and empire – of what it does to those who are colonised, and those who are stolen from colonies to serve the empire. It delves into the crisis of identity caused when people are ripped from their nation and taken to serve another, and Clark does not hold back in displaying how Touraine’s disconnect to her home country, to her ruling nation affect her every thought. The lack of belonging plagues her constantly, the only reprieve in knowing her fellow Sands understand – but even there, there are those who remember their family, their native tongue, their name – and others, like Touraine, who have leant into Balladaire’s iron fisted rule.
‘They never chose this. They’re not getting rewarded for valor with ribbons and raises. We just die, and when we die, we’re not even worth the wood to burn us.’
Luca is a doe-eyed expression of idealistic liberalism when it benefits her – saving Touraine’s life to earn her usage, trusting the rebels to keep her blood-earned peace, promising to make everything right when she’s queen. Other times she earns her reputation by proving to be almost as ruthless as Cantic, the aptly-named Balladairian Blood General, but overall one gets the sense that Luca – despite approaching thirty, a Queen apparent, knows little more about the world than Sansa Stark does when we meet her in Game of Thrones. In other words, she’s booksmart, and real-world dumb, with an astonishing ability to trust people – You get the sense that Luca isn’t so much shrewd as naively doing the savvy political move without the planning or follow through to sanction it.
All of this excellent character work does slow the pace somewhat, until the last quarter kicks it into high gear. This was a slower read for me – partially because of the length, partially because Clark asks more questions than they answer, and that doesn’t detract from the book in the slightest. There is some humour but it gives way under the weight of the subject matter; yet Clark never makes the writing feel exploitative, or explanatory. Their writing shows deft emotional intelligence without ever straying into over-sentimentality. Questioning identity, loyalty, and colonialism at every turn, The Unbroken is a quality example of fantasy which reflects the real world with only the faintest of distortions.
A hard-working military fantasy which interrogates colonialism on a personal scale.
But is it gay?
There’s plenty of queer rep throughout this queer-normative world, including lesbians, bi/pan people, non-binary people, and an older gay couple.