Reviews

“Give me hunger on my own terms”: The Unbroken by C.L. Clark

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SYNOPSIS:

Touraine is a soldier. Stolen as a child and raised to kill and die for the empire, her only loyalty is to her fellow conscripts. But now, her company has been sent back to her homeland to stop a rebellion, and the ties of blood may be stronger than she thought.

Luca needs a turncoat. Someone desperate enough to tiptoe the bayonet’s edge between treason and orders. Someone who can sway the rebels toward peace, while Luca focuses on what really matters: getting her uncle off her throne.

Through assassinations and massacres, in bedrooms and war rooms, Touraine and Luca will haggle over the price of a nation. But some things aren’t for sale. 


There are few books I can’t read without pain, without all my old wounds flaring open. These are the stories that feel almost unbearably personal, the stories I can’t talk about without the words filling my throat to choking, without unlocking something I cannot begin to reconcile. Coming face to face with The Unbroken, a story that is built out of the bones of the colonial history of North Africa—the history of my people, my history—a story which drags out those perennial hurts and exorcises those familiar demons on the page, I was completely and utterly defenseless.

The sheer thematic gravity of The Unbroken ambushed me. The novel is quite nakedly about empire and colonialism, and it is utterly unafraid to leap into the immensity of those words, their labyrinths, the dark and deathlike cold of their truth. But while there is no shortage of fantasy novels that wrangle with the definition of empire and the long, precise catalogue of its colonial cruelties, what makes The Unbroken stand out is that it is most interested in the emotional experiences of the people caught in that empire’s teeth.

Indeed, at the core of this book is a rich, faceted, and jewel-clear examination of not only empire and colonialism but of what it means to be a cog in that blank-eyed hungry machine and to perpetually scrounge for a way to survive without being utterly subsumed. The novel goes deep into all the terrible minutiae of taking a long, hard look at your own colonization, of unraveling the strands of your own complacency while empire is so hideously entangled in your understanding of yourself—just the sheer, exhausting enormity of inheriting an atrocity, of being at the center of that atrocity, and trying, every single day, to find the strength to not dissolve into the weight of it.


Touraine, a Qazāli-born conscript in the imperial army of Balladaire, has a past that she keeps locked in doorless and windowless rooms where the walls are fortified against memory. Now Touraine is back in Qazāl, as an agent of Balladaire’s will, and the dam keeping her past there is finally threatening to burst.

Unlike the other desert-born conscripts—called “Sands” by Balladairans with a boorish lack of affection—who were ripped from their mothers’ arms and thrown into the machinery of empire before they could finish being children, Touraine does not indulge herself in extravagant hopes of home-coming or in vicious dreams of revenge. She stuffs her mind instead with more attainable aspirations, like keeping her soldiers alive, and proving herself an industrious pupil of General Cantic, and an apt subject of Balladaire—hoping Balladaire might like her better for it, that they might look past all that is barbaric about her, and allow her entry inside the warm and glittering center of their grand civilization. For Touraine, who has spent her whole life crawling out of one shallow grave after another, it was about survival: “I can fight for the side that’s winning.

Through Touraine’s character, The Unbroken asks, with an icy clarity that cut through me: what does it do to a person to suffer, day by day, the tyrannies of the powerful who abominate them, while slowly disintegrating from the strain of trying to belong—the equivalent of willfully putting your hand in the mouth of the thing which wants to kill you and pray it doesn’t kill you? And icier still: Where is home, when you are too foreign for your country, and too foreign for theirs, an outsider wherever you land? What is a way of belonging, when the colonizer’s words are stuffed into your mouth and your ancestors’ language is sluggish on your tongue, too cobwebbed with desuetude? Who are you, after they’ve robbed you of your identity and left you bereft of everything that you might have been?

Touraine was cut adrift—sealed off even—from Qazāl, and from everything that made her Qazāli, her memories of her family burned out of her, scoured clean by training, by punishment. When Touraine finds herself back in Qazāl, years later, her return is too contemptuous to be called a coming-home, like trying to fit back into a skin that’s already been ripped out of her. Touraine feels very little continuity between that innocent Qazāli child and this soldier who toils to Balladaire’s whims, and this discontinuity creates in her a painful landscape, a hole eaten through the fabric of her. At one point, Touraine muses: “it [is] impossible to come from one land and learn to live in another and feel whole… you [will] always stand on shaky, hole-ridden ground, half of your identity dug out of you and tossed away.”

For so long Touraine had been full of Balladaire; Balladaire was where she grew up, where she lived, where she remembered Qazāl only as a distant and unsalvageable memory. Accepting that she could no longer lay claim to Qazāl, Touraine wanted to be a good guest for Balladaire, she wanted them to accept her, to approve of her, and she wanted it with the fierceness of someone who hadn’t been allowed much to want. Balladaire, of course, saw it. Balladaire saw the kindling of that helpless desperation and coaxed it to flame. They saw how Touraine soaked up their tutelage like a sponge does water, how she burned with the shame of unbelonging—the weakness of that emotion—and they wielded it against her with silken, meticulous cruelty. They made sure Touraine knew, every day, that she was indebted to them, that she was bound unequivocally to their sufferance. They promised her belonging, but only if she behaved, only if she were good, if she were sufficiently grateful, and kept her dangling, endlessly, on the leash of that hope, chasing hopelessly after something which will always be just beyond her reach, irretrievable.

This is the seduction and horror of empire, a species of violence that is far worse than anything conceivable: how it clamps down, with jaws like a vise, and devours—entire cultures, histories, and peoples lost to its perpetual thirst and hunger—until there is nothing left of you. Except your barbaric marrowless bones, which it spits out so you may bear its civilized lustrous skin—so you may speak its language, ingest its stories, worship at its altar—and be reborn. And when you do—because you always do, you are so eager to fill the absence you hold at your center—it will seize and weigh and measure you before it shakes its head with utter contempt because “you are not enough” and it wants you to never forget it.


After a false accusation almost ties a noose around her neck, Touraine is offered reprieve by working as a precisely-edged weapon for the imperial princess of Balladaire, Luca, who is trying to secure her path to power and prove her imperial bona fides amidst an increasingly intensifying climate of social upheaval and rebellion. And this is how Touraine’s and Luca’s worlds begin to scrape together like the two halves of a broken shard of glass.

My dislike for Luca sprung to life like flint very early on. Everything about her is so perfectly imperial: from her avowed ambition to seize the imperial throne that cared not for who has to succumb to make that accession possible, to her brutal sangfroid when faced with the abject tyrannies of the colonial nobility, to her sheer entitlement—epitomized in her desperate hankering for Qazāl’s magic, which she longs to either possess or annihilate. Even the threadbare excuses Luca drapes herself in to maintain her innocence are so endemic to empire, including her sleek and well-fed delusions about Qazāl and Balladaire growing stably and equilaterally together, living in peace as oppressed and oppressor, an offensive impossibility dressed up as a perfectly tenable eventuality, hindered only by the Qazāli rebels’ inconvenient chafing at Balladaire’s yoke.

The Unbroken cuts through the vocabularies of white entitlement and complacency like an obsidian knife, and the words part to reveal the enormity of the damage even considerably less ill-intentioned white people do, by dint of willful ignorance or appalling gullibility. Indeed, Luca participates in a tradition of white people who nod and utter all the right platitudes, make all the appropriate noises of sympathy, even as they pull the doors behind their eyes closed against your pain—and it only served to make me even less prone to charity towards her. After all, Luca is loyal to empire—to the endlessly self-justifying greed that is empire—and a person who is loyal to empire is never innocent of the blood that waters that empire’s soil. Yet, rather than face her shame, and accept accountability, Luca consistently fails to recognize her complicity, always shoveling blame away from herself, and sifting excuses in her head to choose only those which would obviate her direct responsibility. Luca was never the one doling out lashes, after all; she was simply standing aside, letting terrible things happen, an eerily austere and silent presence during public executions, or in more private dinner parties where Balladaire’s best and brightest paraded their ill-treated Qazāli servants while they devised spectacularly cruel plans intended to strip Qazāl to its bones. It is, the novel hauntingly illustrates, by such deliberate omissions that evil fails to recognize itself.


The relationship between Luca and Touraine, two characters who sit across the world from each other, is a complicated one—the imbalance of power between them stark and troubling—but the author handles it with remarkable care. Luca is, to borrow some of Touraine’s words, “as much a jailer as she [is] a safe bunker”, and their dynamics are a pendulum swinging between flinching back from each other and wanting to pull each other closer. In my more generous moments—and there were very few of them, believe me—I wanted Luca to get it right, I wanted her to understand that it had never been the shape of the world for her like it had been for Touraine, that one cannot love in oppression but in freedom, and most crucially, that Touraine is not the “exception” that absolves Luca’s single-minded devotion to an entirely heartless and impenitent empire. I’m not entirely convinced that Luca gets it by the end of the book, though the final pages do hint at an upcoming process of deeper reconciliation, reparation, and retribution in future installments—and it’s something I’m looking forward to reading.

I was really most interested, however, in the relationship between Touraine and the Qazāli rebels she was duty-bound to suppress and crash into silence and darkness and the places that bloomed into agony where their lives met and misaligned. Touraine’s collision with these women—women who, even in shaking despair, fought to rise above their griefs, to bear each other up and carry each other through one torment to the next—informs a significant part of her journey. In the fragile trust they built between them—a scaffolding held together by desperation, necessity, and purpose—there was something like the word family. This connection dissolves the lies Touraine needed to tell herself because she felt safer inside them: that she no longer belongs to Qazāl any more than it belongs to her, that if she were good, if she did Balladaire’s bidding, she could still earn their respect, and no harm would come to her.

Denuded of the protection of that specious, self-perpetuating belief, Touraine begins, heartbreakingly, to reckon with a part of herself which she had until then tried to excise from her mind in order to survive. That reckoning comes with layers upon layers of choice, and every single one is infused, inconsolably, with a sense of loss, a cold hollowness like the space left behind by a pulled tooth: the knowledge that Qazāl and Balladaire will always fight for the same room inside Touraine’s chest, half of her always at war with the other half, and there is no end for that kind of war.

The ending of The Unbroken, flinchingly hopeful though it may be, refuses to chlorinate the tragedies of colonialism, and it had crystallized for me something I’ve always known, at the back of my mind, unadmitted: that though the wounds of colonial violence can be soothed, they are incurable. There are absences, in the gasping aftermath of war and colonialism, that are impossible to fill, like a hunger that can never be satisfied, but these are the words I keep returning to, like a febrile meditation: “Give me hunger on my own terms.”

Give me hunger on my own terms.


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5 thoughts on ““Give me hunger on my own terms”: The Unbroken by C.L. Clark

  1. You just articulated perfectly how this book felt! Especially with Luca, I felt in the beginning like I should like her because she’s a main character, but her perspective really reflected the hypocrisy of imerialism and the white saviour mission, and I just couldn’t be sympathetic despite her development in the end. The end felt kind of like a cheap consolation prize, because it barely solved anything and the damage was already too deep as you said, but it left me really looking forward to the next books where we can see the consequences play out. Thanks so much for your review, I love your prose!

    Like

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