Lieutenant Touraine is a conscript. Kidnapped as a small child from her homeland—once the Shāzan Empire, now the colony of Qazāl—she was forced into service in the Colonial Brigade of Balladaire, serving alongside others who, like her, were seized from their native desert lands.
They've recently been deployed to El-Wast, the capital of Qazāl and Touraine’s own hometown. Her immediate superior is a noble-born sadist who denigrates her and her companions any chance he gets. Her commanding officer is a woman both respected and feared for her single-minded devotion to the throne and pragmatic brutality. Her best friend yearns for revolution, her lover for safety, and Touraine herself for success, for a chance to prove her worth and the worth of her fellow fighters to their Balladairan overlords. When Touraine foils an assassination attempt against Luca Ancier, the princess of Balladaire, Touraine is hurled headlong into a whirlwind of intrigue, romance and rebellion. She encounters revenants from her past, as well as types of magic that the nobles of Balladaire have denied but that Touraine and her comrades know to be horrifyingly real.
Throughout The Unbroken, the first book in C.L. Clark's Magic of the Lost series, Clark introduces characters as if they're old friends, trusting the reader to infer the connections between Touraine and her fellow soldiers. Although this feels jarring at first—for the first several chapters, the reader almost constantly feels as though they have missed something—it quickly becomes one of The Unbroken’s greatest strengths. As the book submerges the reader in this way, it gives the story a unique urgency and drive, and it persuades the reader that if you just keep going, the answers will reveal themselves. Combined with Clark’s undeniable skill as both a writer and a world builder, this plunge into plot renders The Unbroken a remarkably active read. It requires attention from the reader in ways few speculative works do.
The Unbroken also follows in the grand tradition of speculative fiction that comments directly on the real world. Clark presents a searing and unflinching view of European colonization in North Africa, and of Africans' struggle against it, and she refuses to soften any of the harshness or resolve any of the complications inherent in those events.
In Clark’s world of Balladaire and Shālan, no benevolence goes untarnished and no grand ideal is left uncompromised. Even her villains are driven less by sadism or a desire for chaos than by simple selfishness, greed and the thoughtless cruelty of a bigot convinced their bigotry is, in fact, truth. And yet, for all the disturbingly plausible grime, gore and occasional horror that coat every surface of this tale, The Unbroken is not a dark fantasy. There is a current of optimism that flows throughout: optimism for Touraine and Luca, optimism for Shālan and Balladaire, and perhaps optimism for the real regions Clark has translated onto the page. It's a hope that all these people and places will somehow remain, in spite of the destruction that flawed, selfish, well-meaning people wreak on each other, unbroken.