Touraine returns to the country of her birth with the colonizing force who took her in the first place and made her a conscript. After saving the royal Luca from an assassination attempt, she finds herself fighting more diplomatic battles, especially as the rebel forces want to use her as a mediator between them and the colonists. Riveting and multi-faceted, The Unbroken truly has everything: espionage, a ball, flirty language tutoring, a queernorm world, a nuanced depiction of a rebellion against an empire, and an exploration of identity and its complexities in the context of colonialism.
I’m so excited to have author C.L. Clark on the blog to talk about what inspired the world-building, their road to publishing, and even an entire list of books to read next.
Where did the idea for The Unbroken come from? Were there any specific works you felt inspired by, historical events, or something else?
It came from my own studies of colonialism and post-colonial literature, which made me take a hard look at the fantasy books I loved so much. With The Unbroken, I wanted to turn the colonial conquest narratives of fantasy on their heads. There is, most obviously, inspiration from the colonial relationship between France and North Africa, though no events or locations in the novel correspond to specific real life events or places. That said, colonialism isn’t limited to one region nor one imperial power nor even one time period (just read A People’s History of American Empire), and so my research carried me across the globe and across centuries, from Vietnam and the Phillipines, to the United States, to Australia…the list is unfortunately very long.
It was super neat to read a book with a blend of swords and pistols and magic. I’d love to hear more about how those elements came together.
When I first started writing The Unbroken, it came as a complete visual scene: Touraine, a member of a rifle-toting firing squad, executing people from her homeland for her new masters. At the time, though, I’d never read any fantasy with guns and I wasn’t sure how I was going to do it—if I even could! I want to say that I saw someone talking about it on a NaNoWriMo forum, but I could be making it up; it was so long ago. I do know, though, that I stumbled upon Django Wexler’s The Thousand Names shortly after that, and then Brian McClellan’s Promise of Blood. And I read them and thought, huh, this is actually pretty cool. And I liked the new bits of technology those stories let us play with, and new dangers and new magics. So after that, I took my head and did what felt innately right for the story.
I will say, though, that as I write this answer, I wonder also if one reason I didn’t want to write it in the traditional ‘old past’ fantasy is because we don’t only glorify conquest in fantasy books set in those time frames; we glorify history, too. We don’t talk about Alexander the Great as a colonial power like the British Empire (and some people still think that was great but that’s another story). We talk about him and the Romans like they were…well, great. And so maybe pulling it forward in time allowed me to engage with it a bit better.
The concept of ownership—both political and magical—permeates every interaction and plot beat throughout. Was this an emergent property of the work or did you know from the get-go that it was a major part of the story you wanted to tell?
Since I was writing about colonialism and sovereignty, I definitely knew it was going to come up, but it actually did surprise me more than once how it cropped up in little moments, too, like when Touraine is thinking about the gifts Luca has given her, and how the rebels and the Sands react to what can be taken and what can be given. So much of colonialism and empire seems to come from a root of entitlement—by sheer dint of birth or willingness to cruelty, one deserves to take and use and discard.
On the other hand, throughout the trilogy I think we’ll see the flipside—something that is often confused for ownership—commitment and devotion. Like…a willingness to be used, or to be in service to someone or some cause.
And so these ideas echoed at the most surprising times with the right line of dialogue or exchange of items by people in different subject positions.
Who came to you first: Luca or Touraine?
Touraine. As I mentioned above, the first image I had of this story was Touraine. While the weapon has changed, that scene is still the hook that drew me in, as was her overall conflict—where she belongs, who and what cause she belongs to—there, again, we see the language of ownership. However, Luca will hopefully get her moment to shine in Book 2.
What was your favorite scene or moment to write?
Oh, there are a few, but my favorite at the moment is one at the end: Touraine is walking through the desert with a certain rebel and they’re having a moment. Actually, a couple scenes with that rebel. But I can’t tell you what they are or what they are doing because that would be too big a spoiler. If you read it and think you know what it is… 😉
From querying to publication, were there any parts of the story that stayed the same? What were some major changes, if you’re willing to share?
The biggest change is actually the rebel I mention above—but for spoilers’ sake, I can’t say much about it. I can say that this character didn’t exist in the same way, and when I brought her in, it changed everything about the novel, adding depth and layers. Everything clicked into place. That happened in the last draft I wrote right before getting an agent (and selling it). As far as changes made with my editor…while we added some 30k words, most of it was filling in small gaps and fleshing out the world a bit more. Clarifying some plot points. The story itself didn’t change much.
Publishing and More
Is The Unbroken your first book?
It’s not the first book I ever wrote from beginning to end, but it is the first one that I decided to work on and query (and publish). The first book I ever finished was a Nanowrimo project about a(nother) princess whose throne was usurped, this time by her half-brother, and she defeats him with the help of some fae-ish rogue assassins and an old birthright power that she can use to turn into a wolf. (The last was a bit of Nano-desperation if I’m totally honest.) Anyway, that will probably never see the light of day.
Is there anything you would tell past!Cherae that you know now that you didn’t know when you started?
Do. It. Right. The. First. Time. Which is to say…don’t rush the work. Don’t get so excited to move on to the next stage that you aren’t thorough this time. There are things I could have tightened at various points of my (several) revision drafts, but always put off because I could work on them “later” with an agent or editor. In the end, though, I didn’t get the agent or editor until I worked on those points. Were those problems the thing that earned my novel its first query rejections? Who knows. But still, that’s what I would tell myself. Take your time. Make it right. Not good enough. Good.
Once we’re done swooning over Touraine’s arms and our minds have settled from the layers of intrigue, what do you suggest we read next?
I actually have a whole bookshelf over at Bookshop.org of books like The Unbroken! If you’d like something to cheer you up, on the other hand…might I recommend Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell? Or the Alpennia series by Heather Rose Jones for some queer women falling in love in a Ruritanian world? Intrigue, yes, yearning, a bit, but much less bleak.
What are some books that you’re looking forward to reading this year?
Up next on my list…The Witch’s Heart by Genevieve Gornichec is going to be my next audiobook, I think…and I’m aspirationally carrying around A Desolation Called Peace, reading a page or two at a time. I’m also slowly re-reading The Monster Baru Cormorant so that I can finally read The Tyrant. And also…Hild by Nicola Griffith. Those are a few books that I would really love to finish this year.
C. L. Clark graduated from Indiana University’s creative writing MFA program and was a 2012 Lambda Literary Fellow. They’ve been a personal trainer, an English teacher, and an editor, and is some combination thereof as they travel the world. When they’re not writing or working, they’re learning languages, doing P90something, or reading about war and (post)colonial history. Their short fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, FIYAH, and Uncanny, and on PodCastle, where they are currently a coeditor. Their debut novel The Unbroken comes out today, March 23, 2021. You can follow them on Twitter: @c_l_clark.