Book Review: The Unbroken by C.L. Clark
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars
Series: Book 1 of Magic of the Lost
Publisher: Orbit (March 23, 2021)
Length: 464 pages
Borrowing its inspiration from the history of colonialism in North Africa, The Unbroken by C.L. Clark is a military fantasy told through the eyes of two women on both sides of a tense political conflict.
Touraine was a child of Qazāl, kidnapped by the occupying Balladaire and raised to fight in their army, where she eventually rises to the rank of lieutenant. But it is a difficult existence, mistrusted by her own people yet also scorned by those who rule over her. Touraine often finds herself straddling the two worlds, constantly questioning her allegiance—such as when her company is called out to put down a rebellion that has broken out in her homeland.
Meanwhile, despite living in the privileged lap of rulership, Princess Luca Ancier is dealing with a power struggle within her own family. She wants the throne that her uncle currently holds, yet knows not how to go about taking it. As she is being escorted back to the Qazāli capital in which she resides, however, her caravan is ambushed by rebels. Luckily, Touraine was there to guard the princess, thwarting the attack.
Unfortunately, the incident is merely a sign of more tensions and strife to come. Touraine, shaken by something that happened during the rebel attack, realizes her long forgotten ties to Qazāl may yet affect her in ways she can’t even imagine. To her humiliation and shame, she soon finds herself framed for a crime she didn’t commit, and beseeches the princess to help her avoid capital punishment. Luca, sensing an opportunity, decides to intervene and save Touraine’s life, believing she has gained a loyal follower and potential spy in the process. Still, their ensuring arrangement is loaded with challenges, even as the relationship between them develops and deepens. Touraine’s growing sympathies make it increasingly more difficult to carry out the assignments given to her by the princess, and as much as Luca claims to want to help the Qazāl and negotiate for peace, it doesn’t change the fact she is still seeking the throne for her own reasons.
First off, there’s no question there are some great points behind The Unbroken, from the complex character relationships to the provocative themes of colonialism and the power imbalances that drive the plot. The novel is full of uncomfortable questions as well as allusions to certain historical events and circumstances that need to be explored, and in a way, it is both a commentary and a prompt to examine the intricate ties between colonization and one’s sense of social and cultural identity.
And yet, despite all that was going for it, I thought the story floundered in its execution. You ever come across a book that feels full to bursting with a multitude of interesting ideas but somehow still feels insubstantial and empty? That’s sort of what got from The Unbroken. I adored the first hundred pages or so, in which we were treated to about a million people, places, and things to remember, but for all that this setup was chaotic and confused, I was in my element taking in all the rich detail and absorbing the background lore. The worldbuilding was exquisite, the prose robust, and the backstories of the characters were deftly done. But after a while, this initial glow faded away. I became more and more disenchanted by the plot, which slowed to a crawl around the midway point, and also started noticing a few things that didn’t really sit right with me.
One of them was the relationship between the two protagonists. Obviously, with Luca being a princess and Touraine being a conscripted servant of the throne, there was potential for it to go in a number of possible directions, but a romance was perhaps the most ineffective and uninspired. Trust me, there was plenty enough there to develop and preserve the same powerful emotions between the two main characters that the author wanted to convey without having to involve all the yearning desires and all that messy, angsty drama. At best, the romance felt undeveloped, and at worst, it was a distraction.
All in all, I thought The Unbroken started off on an excellent note, but ultimately ended up being middle-of-the-road. It certainly wasn’t a bad book, but I was led to expect more from its strong introduction, and became disappointed when that didn’t happen. Still, I’m not complaining too much; like I said, there are a lot of high points in this novel which I have no doubt will leave many readers very happy, but as for me, I’ll be taking a wait-and-see approach for the rest of the series.