Review of The Unbroken, by C.L. Clark

Reviewed by Stephen Case

C. L. Clark, whose short fiction has appeared in places like FIYAH, Uncanny, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, begins her first published novel with one of those opening sentences that either makes you put the book quickly back on the shelf because you don’t have time to learn an entire new history and geography or makes you lean in and take note because you love doing exactly that. “A sandstorm,” it begins, “brewed dark and menacing against the Qazali horizon as Lieutenant Touraine and the rest of the Balladairan Colonial Brigade sailed into El-Wast, capital city of Qazal, foremost of Balladaire’s southern colonies.”

In this case, I recommend the lean in and take note approach. Clark paints the setting of the dusty edge of an empire not, as might be expected, to set up an epic that will spiral from this fringe to the empire’s heart. Rather, Clark spends the novel turning this expectation on its head, as a ragged backwater slowly comes to be seen and understood not as periphery but as center of an oppressed culture, the capital of a lost empire, and the place where the struggles of a wider kingdom will play out with claustrophobic effect.

Touraine, the first of the novel’s two protagonists, is a soldier who was conscripted as a child from Qazal, a territory modeled on North Africa that has been conquered by Balladaire, a fictional analogue of France. The setting initially feels medieval, though the soldiers carry muskets. Clark has taken the history of France’s bloody colonization of Algeria and given it the memory of magic. At the novel’s start, Touraine and her regiment of fellow conscripts are sailing into El-Wast, the colonial capital, to help the Balladairan crown princess quell a Qazali rebellion.

As the novel progresses, Touraine predictably becomes divided between loyalty to Balladaire and growing identification with her own people. On the one hand, Touraine remains intent on showing her Balladairan superiors that the “Sands”—the derogatory term for colonial conscripts—are ideal soldiers and fit for positions of leadership. On the other hand is Touraine’s social entrapment, the racist treatment she receives at the hands of her officers and the slow realization that despite her best efforts she’ll always be seen as inferior. When violence breaks out in the city, Touraine must ultimately commit and suffer multiple betrayals as she decides to help the Qazali rebels while simultaneously keeping her fellow conscripts from getting caught in the middle of the expanding rebellion.

The novel’s other primary character is Luca, the Balladairan crown princess, who arrives in Qazali to bring the recalcitrant colony to heel and prove to her regent uncle she is ready to take up the crown. Though she holds power in the city, Luca, like Touraine, is trapped by her position. Despite being commander of the Balladairan forces and the heir apparent to an empire, Luca must work against her position as a young woman as well as a disability that makes mobility difficult and painful. Moreover, Luca genuinely wants to be a just ruler, but her efforts are hamstrung by her position: she can never negotiate with the rebels because they will never be on equal footing. Likewise, as the city spirals toward rebellion, the relationship that develops between her and Touraine is just as fraught. How can there be consent, friendship, trust, or even romance with such an imbalance of power? Clark does real work with this novel, showing the poison that inequality brings to negotiations and relationships. As the lives of Luca and Touraine become entangled and the situation in the city unravels around them, we get a clear-eyed representation of how colonization damages both colonizer and colonized.

Clark’s fascinating treatment of magic will resonate with readers of faith. In Balladaire, the equivalent of the European Enlightenment has already taken place. Magic is gone, along with any belief in god or gods. This is seen by the Balladairans as their kingdom’s primary civilizing trait vis a vis its conquered territories: people like the Qazali and their desert allies persist in believing in gods and magic. Yet Touraine has witnessed magic in battle, and she hates and fears it for its violent effects and bloody cost. Luca, on the other hand, sees magic as a resource to extract from Qazal. She wants to appropriate the Qazali healing magic for the power and influence it would give her to both heal herself and her people ravaged by plague. In Clark’s formulation though, magic is linked to religious belief because it depends on belief in the gods. Magic, Luca learns, is a transaction with supernatural powers: one asks a god for something and must be willing to give something in return. In this sense magic is embedded in systems of belief and cannot be removed from those systems or reduced to rules and procedures.

Luca’s relationship to this magic—along with her desire to know that there are deeper powers at work in the world—is compelling. Luca was raised in a society that forbids worship of gods and sees itself as superior for doing so, and yet she perceives that something has been lost. At the same time, Luca falls into the trap of the idea of control, of viewing Qazali magic as something that can be removed from that culture, extracted as one extracts taxes. Even when she has forced her captives to demonstrate use of magic, she must wrestle with the realization that magic, faith, and belief are inextricably woven together. She’s faced with the question of whether one can force belief to obtain certain ends, and in this she ultimately fails.

Another reason that readers of faith, and specifically Christian readers, should take note of Clark’s work is because it is a powerful and effective example of post-colonial fiction. Western Christians have a responsibility to grapple with the reality of our past, and reading fiction like The Unbroken is an excellent start.

Balladaire is a stand-in in the novel for European colonial power, fictional in its setting but actual in its arrogance and secularism. What a history book might paint in broad strokes about the realities of colonialism in North Africa, Clark’s novel maps out on the ground in broken lives and damaged relationships. The Unbroken is about the impossible positions that colonialism and racism place people in and the ways in which asymmetrical power structures undermine relationships and destroy culture. Books like this are important because throughout history and even today, ostensibly Christian societies continue to find themselves in Balladaire’s role.

The power of Clark’s novel—which stands as a solid military fantasy, akin to Black Company with its martial focus—is its crushing and unflinching reality. Despite the best intentions of individuals on both sides, there is no way the characters can get what they want. Luca can’t relent when outright rebellion breaks out without losing face and her chance at the throne. Touraine can’t keep her loyalty to her oaths in a system that is structured against her people. The Unbroken is a novel about broken systems and the people trying to survive within them, which leaves me with a question after reading: who is unbroken? Each character breaks, has their hopes dashed, betrays and is betrayed. What remains unbroken by the end, unless the dream of something better?

The Unbroken, C. L. Clark
Magic of the Lost: Book One
Orbit, 2021

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