After the absolute tour de force of Winter’s Orbit, I had high hopes for my second Dark Horse debut of the year: The Unbroken, by C.L. Clark. This book is all about picking sides and watching characters choose between a rock and a hard place. It has a colonial African setting, which is delightfully refreshing, and an interesting premise. With all of this information bouncing around in my head, my expectations were extremely high. So, when I finally got my hands on an ARC of Clark’s debut, I was mildly disappointed to find that my impressions of the book were mixed. There is nothing enormously problematic with this piece of fiction, but it feels like it’s just slightly off in a number of small ways that add up over time to a middling experience.
The plot of The Unbroken centers around two characters: Touraine and Luca. Touraine is a Qazali native, and slave conscript of the Balladairan empire. Balladairan feels like a pseudo fantasy France allegory (given its naming conventions and culture), and Qazali feels like a representative of France’s African colonies. Touraine was shipped off as a youth, stolen from her homeland, and forced into an experimental colonial regiment of the Balladairan armed forces. She rose up the ranks to lieutenant and has now been deployed as a peacekeeping force back in her home country. This has left her understandably conflicted as she wrestles with her allegiance to an overwhelming power that has given her a token of authority despite their constant mistreatment, and her actual homeland who resent her as a Balladairan lapdog and want nothing to do with her.
The second lead is Luca, a Balladairan princess. She has been shipped off to the colonies by her scheming regent uncle to keep her out of the way and reduce her influence. Luca, being a brilliant and cunning woman with her sights on early ascension to her throne, decides to use this semi-exile to cement her power outside her uncle’s control by rallying the colonies to her banner. After an unfortunate series of events that leave both women in a bad position, they decide to essentially team up and see if they can navigate the complicated political morass of the situation together. Unsurprisingly, a romance begins to brew between them.
You might notice that I have devoted a lot more review space than usual to the plot of The Unbroken. That is because it is easily its strongest point and what kept me coming back to push through a number of other issues that erected barriers in my path. The Unbroken’s biggest issue, which compounds all its others, is that it just feels too vague most of the time it is telling its story. Motivations feel undefined, locations feel unfinished, and sometimes dialogue feels like there are pieces of the conversation missing from the page. Here are some examples. Luca tells you that she needs to use the colonies, and their unknown mysterious magic, to offset her uncle and win back her throne. But for a very large portion of the book, Luca never explains why she needs these things, how she expects to use them, and what the end result will be. You are just expected to take these statements at face value and run with them. The main event that causes the two protagonists to fall into league is the court marshaling of Touraine for a crime that she obviously didn’t commit. There is absolutely no evidence, no motivation for the crime, a crystal clear alibi, and no clear reason why she would be accused in the first place. It feels like a moment of plot convenience to catalyze getting the two POVs on the same team – but I can’t tell if Clark just expects me to be fine with a bare-bones justification of why this is happening or if this is a comment on how corrupt the Balladairan court process is to colonials that I just missed because of how underdeveloped the cultures can feel.
Let’s talk about worldbuilding. Early on in the series, you get a glimpse of the mysterious magic of the Qazali. It is part of the driving reason why Luca wants to use the colonies as a base for her power, and that is pretty much all of the worldbuilding you get for an entire half of a book. It is agonizingly frustrating because the book noticeably ramps up in descriptives as it moves into its back half, but I don’t understand why I had to slog through the first half without a clear grasp of the world I was exploring. A point in the book’s favor is that both protagonists are actually great. I felt they were nicely complex, their romance is very believable (despite some slightly awkward dialogue here and there), and they are very different from one another in a way that compliments each other. Then we have the antagonists, such as Rogan, who feel like ridiculous caricatures. Rogan is a noble officer of the Balladairan armed forces whose entire purpose is to continually say he is going to rape Touraine with no repercussions to show you how poorly the colonial soldiers are treated. It feels absolutely absurd and instead of railing against Rogan, I found myself waiting for a more interesting antagonist to present themselves.
On the other hand, the themes of choice in the book are very nicely realized and kept me coming back despite my misgivings. I felt a lot of emotional investment in the complicated situation Touraine finds herself in and I found myself hungering to see if she could find a way to find an answer to her problems. Her story picks up significantly once the two POVs team up about 20% into the book, though the first fifth is very slow. Luca is more consistently interesting from start to finish. Her scheming makes her feel more like a treacherous royal advisor archetype and it was fun to see the troupe as a protagonist we are routing for instead of an antagonist.
Ultimately, my thoughts on The Unbroken remain unclear even after finishing it and thinking about this review. The premise and story have massive potential, and some of it is very clearly realized. However, there is a lot of energy lost thanks to the overwhelming sense of vagueness that the narrative exudes that sometimes smothered my interest in pressing further into the book. I think I still recommend this series and think Clark has a lot of promise, but The Unbroken is certainly not a flawless masterpiece.
Rating: The Unbroken – 6.5/10