Review: The Unbroken by C.L. Clark

Publication Date: March 23, 2021
Attributes: adult novel, f/f unresolved sexual tension, enemies-to-still-enemies-but-horny-about-it, low-key backstory polycule (I think???), epic military fantasy
Quick note: I received a free copy of this book from Orbit via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. That did not influence the content of this review.

HO BOY. I do not even know where to start with this one. There's so much here, and it's all so GOOD.

This is a smart, brutal book invested in the concept of empire and colonization. It struggles heavily with complicity, and it's not shy or evasive when it comes down to it. It shares some thematic resonance with Kacen Callender's Queen of the Conquered and Matt Wallace's Savage Legion, though the plot and setting are entirely novel. And some elements remind me quite a bit of Emily Skrutskie's Bonds of Brass — though this book succeeds in all of the places where that novel fell flat, for me, as it manages to actually meaningfully grapple with the concept of empire.

The Unbroken follows two women at opposite poles of an empire whose lives crash together. One, Touraine, is a lieutenant in a colonial brigade of the empire that conquered her home country. The other, Luca, is the embattled heir to that country.

Touraine's military superiors have failed her again and again, and early in the story, they strip her of her rank and condemn her to death. Luca decides to save her so that she can use the former lieutenant to infiltrate a rebel cell that's trying to destabilize colonial rule. Meanwhile, she's also trying to find proof that rumors of magic are true, and use that magic to heal a plague.

What follows is... a lot. Touraine struggles with indoctrination/inculcation that has convinced her to remain loyal to the empire that separated her from her family and continues to abuse her and use her comrades as canon-fodder. Yet, she excels among her soldiers, gets promoted, feels success and pleasure at the small nibbles of validation that the army metes out. Even after getting sentenced to death, she's still loyal.

But things start to change as she interacts with the rebel forces. She has family among them, and they... don't get along. But her connection to Luca continues to draw her back in to the life she's learned to love, and the rules that she's been promised will reward her if she follows them.

Meanwhile, Luca's scrabbling for power, desperate to push Touraine to find any kind of advantage that can end the rebel insurgence. She wants to take a different approach to rule than others in the empire, is a scholar seeking the secrets of magic and peace, and she sees herself as better than the rest. Maybe she is, but she's still cruel, self-centered, and short-sighted in many ways.

Everyone makes terrible, terrible choices in this book. Things go horribly, progressively wrong. Each time something gets slightly better, something else goes wrong (usually because Touraine or Luca made a disastrous decision). There's no easy romance here — there's a lot of tension, and betrayal, and fury. But their connection is undeniable and fascinating. As they fight on and their allegiances change, their relationship still propels the book.

I loved this one overall. It's smart and mean and cathartic in a way that really, really works, and is compulsively readable to boot. Highly recommend — and you still have a few days to preorder.

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Kae Petrin is a data journalist and media educator based in the Pacific Northwest. Find them at @petrinkae on Twitter.