The Unbroken takes elements of a military fantasy and adds in deeply complicated characters with plenty of political intrigue. This is a gritty read that never shies away from the brutal realities of colonialism and imperialism. It vividly highlights the extent people are willing to go to fight for their freedom, identity and sovereignty – even when the odds are stacked against them.
The story begins as a ship with a military contingent from Balladaire approaches the shores of its fractious colony Qazāl. On board is a colonial regiment comprised of men and women who were kidnapped throughout the colonies as children and conscripted to be troops for the Balladairan army. They are always the first to be thrown into front lines but despite years of difficult service they are still looked down upon by their Balladairan peers. Even the regiment’s nickname, the “Sands”, is used disparagingly by their superiors.
One of these conscript soldiers is a main character Touraine. She was stolen from Qazāl itself as a child, but she’s reticent to feeling any particular tie to her homeland. Touraine has no doubt that the deployment of the Sands to help deal with a rebellious uprising in the Qazāli city of El-Wast is as much a test of their loyalties to the Balladairan empire as it is a measure to ramp up military might over their colonial holdings.
Touraine is considered a “model” conscript who believes if she proves her unwavering allegiance to Balladaire, she and the other Sands will finally be rewarded as they deserve. She adhered to their every rule to discard any cultural influence from her homeland right up to the Shalan language used in Qazāl. Everything from her education and martial training to her Balladairan name was instilled in her with the purpose of “civilizing” her in their service. With her finally returning to her homeland for the first time in over twenty years, Touraine’s priority is to protect her fellow Sands and ensure none of her troops are punished for sympathizing with the resisting Qazāli. She’s seen firsthand just how fatal Balladairan punishments for disloyalty and defection can be.
The conscript soldiers are also accompanied by the Balladairan princess and heir apparent, Luca. She is the other main character and has a more calculating agenda of her own. She does not intent to let her uncle be the regent over the empire forever. Despite his assurances that he’s eager to let Luca rule once she’s prepared, she knows what he’s really waiting for is the chance to attack her competency and take the throne for himself.
Luca’s decided that the situation in Qazāl will be her chance to demonstrate her ability, and she does not intend to let her disability or sneering Balladairan aristocrats get in her way. She is well-educated, speaks Shalan fluently, and believes that she can right some of the many wrongs that have been done to the Qazāli people. In her mind, if she could just find a way to negotiate with the rebels and rectify some of the greater grievances in Qazāl, then all will be pacified and nothing will come to bloodshed. She also intends to focus on her secret goal – to investigate any traces of magic that would be taboo back in Balladaire.
Touraine and Luca soon find themselves thrown together through an assassination attempt and a set-up until eventually Touraine ends up as Luca’s liaison to the rebels. But things only get more difficult from there as they both learn that their goals aren’t simple as they wish them to be.
Story wise, there were times the pacing the plot could be rather slow. I wouldn’t have minded it as much if didn’t feel the narrative build up towards key events were missing some key details or moments that would have made the climax more impactful. But this is something I can overlook as the major themes apparent throughout the story were always engaging and dealt with in a thoughtful manner.
There just really are so many elements to this book that are hard-hitting. Touraine in particular has a truly fascinating character arc as she struggles with her faltering allegiance to Balladaire and lack of sense of belonging. She is never accepted as Balladairan but feels alienated from her own culture as well. The only place she feels she belongs is with the Sands, and her desperation to try to protect them from hostility from both sides often leads her to make terrible choices. Touraine can be frustrating but it’s relieving to watch her slowly realize that entire system that keeps her chained as a conscript has always been built as a method of enduring subjugation. Watching her interactions with those who challenge her beliefs – most powerfully from a long-lost relative – are some of the most powerful moments.
Then there’s also the incredulity of watching negotiations that are meant to be in “good faith” and questioning how that can possibly take place with the severe power disparity between the conquered and the conquerors. It would just highlight more of my frustrations with Luca’s mindset whenever her initial intentions to try to improve conditions for the Qazāli would always fall back into embracing the system and brute force whenever she felt cornered.
I do have to touch a bit on the romantic subplot. I’m not much sold on the romance yet for a few reasons. The first is that there’s such an obvious power imbalance and that Luca rarely shies from lording her station when things aren’t going her way. I also can’t quite pinpoint any concrete romantic development between them that explains their sudden strong feelings for one another besides their physical attraction to each other. With this and the fact that their relationship tended to fade into the background when compared to the other events of the plot, I couldn’t get invested in the romance. But I’m interested to see how it will develop in future books.
The relationship that absolutely did sell me, however, was the relationship between Touraine and Jaghotai. It was messy. It was complex. At one point it was like a punch to the gut. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a mother-daughter relationship like this in fantasy and I’m on board to see so much more of it.
I’ll be looking forward to what the future installments will bring for these characters.
Many thanks to NetGalley and Orbit Books for providing the free eARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.