Empire and Betrayal in ‘The Unbroken’

*No Major Spoilers

In the preface of Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth (1961), Jean-Paul Sarte names the major factions that struggle with and against each other in colonized lands: there are “men,” the European minority, and there are “natives,” the Black and Brown majority of the world. The “men” maintain their high imperial status despite their lesser numbers by coercing middle-men (“hired kinglets, overlords, and a bourgeoisie”) into acting as bullies, snitches and social wardens — reminding “natives” that they have been totalized into an underclass, and there are lines they mustn’t cross if they want to increase their chances of survival. Both middle-men and natives are kept in line by fear: the former are threatened with social death (the loss of their comforts and illusions) and the latter are threatened with total death (the loss of everything they have, including their bodies). 

In The Unbroken (2021), C.L. Clark’s stunning debut novel, Touraine (a woman who was kidnapped from her homeland as a child and trained into a promising, imperial soldier) is both middle-man and native, experiencing the vulnerabilities of both stations simultaneously. She feels the warring tensions of her identity more acutely when she and her fellow soldiers are deployed from Balladaire (an empire that resembles France) to Qazāl (the occupied homeland Touraine and other “Sands” hadn’t seen since they were stolen). As the novel progresses, Touraine is tormented by her long held desire to be a darling of color within the Balladairan army. She’s stretched so thin by the contrary appeals of Balladairan might and Qazāli rebellion that she begins to dislike herself for being so in-the-middle, so indecisive, so so-so, and through that dislike she begins to change her mind. 

Author C. L. Clark (pic from Amazon author page)

I was at war myself as I read this novel. Part of me recognized Touraine’s fears and wished I could hug her, and another part of me resented her for her resemblance to people who once betrayed me to wield power, and yet another part of me knew (from personal experience) what a nightmare it can be to choose between personal survival and collective survival when circumstances limit you to either/or. Sometimes I saw my past in Pruett, the scorned lover Touraine left in the balance when a whiter opportunity arose, and sometimes I saw my past in Touraine, the eager foot-soldier who followed orders, who thought her old hurt would fade away if she was talented enough (for what, exactly?) and the right people liked her. I’m thankful that Clark wanted her readers to reflect in this way, with our critical eyes turning both outward and inward. The Unbroken is a novel that encourages readers to kill the imperialists in our minds — to pray for change and be the change. It’s both a pleasure and a challenge to read.

I’m excited to read the next two novels in the Magic of the Lost trilogy, which, I’m sure, will continue to stir needed questions about power, sacrifice, grief, faith, and what earthly justice requires of us.

References / Further Reading  —

Song: “Pray for Rain” (2010) by Massive Attack 

Essay: “The Fiction of Peace, The Fantasy of War” (2021) by C.L. Clark

Interview (Video): “Writing Fantasy with C.L. Clark, author of THE UNBROKEN” by Fictitious