Today, I’m very happy to be able to share with you an annotated excerpt from The Unbroken by C. L. Clark. One of the most hotly-anticipated fantasy debuts of the year, and the first novel in the Magic of the Lost series, it is the story of two women who “clash in a world full of rebellion, espionage, and military might on the far outreaches of a crumbling desert empire”. Due out next week, here’s the 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.
And now, on with the excerpt…!
Chapter 1: Change
A sandstorm brewed dark and menacing against the Qazāli horizon as Lieutenant Touraine and the rest of the Balladairan Colonial Brigade sailed into El-Wast, capital city of Qazāl, foremost of Balladaire’s southern colonies.
Surprise! This was not the original first line. It didn’t come until very late into the process, in fact. The first line that I worked with for a very long time was: “A sandstorm blew through Qatal the day that Lieutenant Touraine heard her real name again.” Alas, it didn’t fit with important last-minute revisions.
El-Wast. City of marble and sandstone, of olives and clay. City of the golden sun and fruits Touraine couldn’t remember tasting. City of rebellious, uncivilized god-worshippers. The city where Touraine was born.
Actually, this wasn’t even the first chapter! The first chapter is what is now the second chapter! But readers tended to agree that a little more context would help, and as I wrote it, the…subsequent events opened up an opportunity to bring our soldier and princess crashing together a little sooner… One reason I agreed to make these changes is because starting the story here, with a little less active conflict, meant that I could slow down and show the reader what the world looks like and how our characters feel about it as they enter as strangers. It lets the reader, also a stranger, enter at the same time.
At a sudden gust, Touraine pulled her black military coat tighter about her body and hunched small over the railing of the ship as it approached land. Even from this distance, in the early-morning dark, she could see a black Balladairan standard flapping above the docks. Its rearing golden horse danced to life, sparked by the reflection of the night lanterns. Around her, pale Balladairan-born sailors scrambled across the ship to bring it safely to harbor.
Ah, our first sight of the empire. It’s badge of ownership.
El-Wast, for the first time in some twenty-odd years. It took the air from the lieutenant’s chest. Her white-knuckle grip on the rail was only partly due to the nausea that had rocked her on the water.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Tibeau, Touraine’s second sergeant and best friend, settled against the rail next to her. The wooden rail shifted under his bulk. He spoke quietly, but Touraine could hear the awe and longing in the soft rumble of his voice.
Beautiful wasn’t the first thing Touraine thought as their ship sailed up the mouth of the River Hadd and gave them a view of El-Wast. The city was surprisingly big. Surprisingly bright. It was surprisingly… civilized. A proper city, not some scattering of tents and sand. Not what she had expected at all, given how Balladairans described the desert colonies. From this angle, it didn’t even look like a desert.
With the dialogue above (and below), I wanted to start showing the different opinions the conscripts have about coming home. It was important to me to show the different ways people react to oppressive regimes. Different ways people interact with and glamorize their pasts. I’m glad that we get a chance to meet the friends earlier, too — spend more time with them before — ahem.
The docks stretched along the river like a small town, short buildings nestled alongside what were probably warehouses and workers’ tenements. Just beyond them, a massive bridge arced over shadowed farmland with some crop growing in neat rows, connecting the docks to the curve of a crumbling wall that surrounded the city. The Mile-Long Bridge. The great bridge was lined with the shadows of palm trees and lit up all along with the fuzzy dots of lanterns. In the morning darkness, you could easily have mistaken the lanterns for stars.
She shrugged. “It’s impressive, I guess.”
Tibeau nudged her shoulder and held his arms out wide to take it all in. “You guess? This is your home. We’re finally back. You’re going to love it.” His eyes shone in the reflection of the lanterns guiding the Balladairan ship into Crocodile Harbor, named for the monstrous lizards that had lived in the river centuries ago.
I like to think that these crocs are really big. Like dinosaur big. Grr.
Home. Touraine frowned. “Love it? Beau, we’re not on leave.” She dug half-moons into the soft, weather-worn wood of the railing and grumbled, “We have a job to do.”
Tibeau scoffed. “To police our own people.”
Aha. There’s the rub. That’s what we’re doing here. Inner conflicts, outer conflicts.
The thunk of approaching boots on the deck behind them stopped Touraine from saying something that would keep Tibeau from speaking to her for the rest of the day. Something like These aren’t my people. How could they be? Touraine had barely been toddling in the dust when Balladaire took her.
“You two better not be talking about what I think you’re talking about,” Sergeant Pruett said, coming up behind them with her arms crossed.
“Of course not,” Touraine said. She and Pruett let their knuckles brush in the cover of darkness.
This is a queernorm world and these two are lovers, but there’s a vulnerability at stake when the Sands show affection publicly. You never know who might choose to use it against you…
“Good. Because I’d hate to have to throw you bearfuckers overboard.”
Pruett. The sensible one to Tibeau’s impetuousness, the scowl to his smile. The only thing they agreed on was hating Balladaire for what it had done to them, but unlike Tibeau, who was only biding his time before some imaginary revolution, Pruett was resigned to the conscripts’ fate and thought it better to keep their heads down and hate Balladaire in private.
Alright, now we’ve been introduced to the three members of the best friends’ squad. They represent a sort of triangulation of reactions to their situation as conscripts. Tibeau and Pruett are both older, both remember more of the homes they left — but where Tibeau has kept the fire burning all these years, just waiting, Pruett (who is not from Qazāl but from another Shalan colony) is more apathetic and conservative in her actions. She’s not foolish enough to leave the security of working for the empire, but she’s not going to go out of her way to help them. Touraine, on the other hand, really believes she’ll be able to rise in the eyes of Balladairans if she says the right things, does the right things, shows them that she’s better. We’ll see how well that works out for her over the next few books…
Pruett shoved her way between the two of them and propped her elbows on the railing. Her teeth chattered. “It’s cold as a bastard here. I thought the deserts were supposed to be hot.”
Tibeau sighed wistfully, staring with longing at some point beyond the city. “Only during the day. In the real desert, you can freeze your balls off if you forget a blanket.”
I almost did this once. Metaphorically speaking. Had to include it.
“You sound…oddly excited about that.” Pruett looked askance at him.
Home was a sharp topic for every soldier in the Balladairan Colonial Brigade. There were those like Tibeau and Pruett, who had been taken from countries throughout the broken Shālan Empire when they were old enough to already have memories of family or the lack thereof, and then there were those like Touraine, who had been too young to remember anything but Balladaire’s green fields and thick forests.
No matter where in the Shālan Empire the conscripts were originally from, they all speculated on the purpose of their new post. There was excitement on the wind, and Touraine felt it, too. The chance to prove herself. The chance to show the Balladairan officers that she deserved to be a captain. Change was coming.
Sometimes, when there’s enough turbulence in the political landscape, when militaries are mobilized and put under new command — sometimes, you just know something’s going to give. Whether the change is for the better or the worse, you can’t really know, you can only hope, but you recognize that things are unstable enough that there are opportunities in the falling pieces. If 2020 has taught people anything, one would hope it was that…
Even the Balladairan princess had come with the fleet. Pruett had heard from another conscript who had it from a sailor that the princess was visiting her southern colonies for the first time, and so the conscripts took turns trying to spot the young royal on her ship.
Oh, what’s this? A princess… certainly not important. Above their paygrade. Best to ignore.
The order came to disembark, carried by shouts on the wind. Discipline temporarily disappeared as the conscripts and their Balladairan officers hoisted their packs and tramped down to Crocodile Harbor’s thronged streets.
People shouted in Balladairan and Shālan as they loaded and unloaded ships, animals in cages and animals on leads squawked and bellowed, and Touraine walked through it all in a daze, trying to take it all in. Qazāl’s dirt and grit crunched beneath her army-issued boots. Maybe she did feel a spark of awe and curiosity. And maybe that frightened her just a little.
With a wumph, Touraine walked right into an odd tan horse with a massive hump in the middle of its back. She spat and dusted coarse fur off her face. The animal glared at her with large, affronted brown eyes and a bubble of spit forming at the corner of its mouth.
The animal’s master flicked his long gray-streaked hair back off his smiling face and spoke to Touraine in Shālan.
Touraine hadn’t spoken Shālan since she was small. It wasn’t allowed when they were children in Balladaire, and now it sounded as foreign as the camel’s groan. She shook her head.
Here, we get introduced to Touraine’s difficulties with the language. It’s a common thing, for people to lose their first/native language when forced to assimilate, or when taught to think one language is more important than another, more useful. I’d like to think language as power and belonging is an important aspect of this book. Who speaks what, how they speak it, how they use it to hold onto or distinguish themselves, or to break others.
“Camel. He spit,” the man warned, this time in Balladairan. The camel continued to size her up. It didn’t look like it was coming to any good conclusion.
I know, buddy. I know.
Touraine grimaced in disgust, but beside her, Pruett snorted. The other woman said something short to the man in Shālan before turning Touraine toward the ships.
“What did you say?” Touraine asked, looking over her shoulder at the glaring camel and the older man.
“Please excuse my idiot friend.”
Touraine rolled her eyes and hefted her pack higher onto her shoulders.
“Rose Company, Gold Squad, form up on me!” She tried in vain to gather her soldiers in some kind of order, but the noise swallowed her voice. She looked warily for Captain Rogan. If Touraine didn’t get the rest of her squad in line, that bastard would take it out on all of them. “Gold Squad, form up!”
Pruett nudged Touraine in the ribs. She pointed, and Touraine saw what kept her soldiers clumped in whispering groups, out of formation.
A young woman descended the gangway of another ship with the support of a cane. She wore black trousers, a black coat, and a short black cloak lined with cloth of gold. Her blond hair, pinned in a bun behind her head, sparked like a beacon in the night. Three stone-faced royal guards accompanied her in a protective triangle, their short gold cloaks blown taut behind them. Each of them had a sword on one hip and a pistol on the other.
So, small bonus detail — I’m terrible with clothing. I just assume everyone is wearing something cool and go on with writing. It’s not until the end when all of my editors are asking me do I go back in and fill in some cool-sounding clothing. Oops. However, it was a priority to get at least some clothing details in for future fanart, hint-hint. 😉
Touraine looked from the princess to the chaos on the ground, and a growing sense of unease raised the short hairs on the back of her neck. Suddenly, the crowd felt more claustrophobic than industrious.
The man with the camel still stood nearby, watching with interest like the other dockworkers. His warm smile deepened the lines in his face, and he guided the animal’s nose to her, as if she wanted to pat it. The camel looked as unenthusiastic at the prospect as Touraine felt.
“No.” Touraine shook her head at him again. “Move, sir. Give us this space, if you please.”
He didn’t move. Probably didn’t understand proper Balladairan. She shooed him with her hands. Instead of reacting with annoyance or confusion, he glanced fearfully over her shoulder.
Mm. Some of that condescension some of Sands feel toward the locals. With a proper Balladairan education, the Sands are clearly better than the people they came from…
She followed his gaze. Nothing there but the press of the crowd, her own soldiers either watching the princess or drowsily taking in their new surroundings in the early-morning light. Then she saw it: a young Qazāli woman weaving through the crowd, gaze fixed on one blond point.
The camel man grabbed Touraine’s arm, and she jerked away.
Touraine was a good soldier, and a good soldier would do her duty. She didn’t let herself imagine what the consequences would be if she was wrong.
Touraine is trying so, so hard to do what she believes is her duty. To be worthy in the eyes of Balladaire. This is the beginning of her arc — she’s devoted and loyal and certain that things will work out in the end; it is what she was taught, even if it wasn’t what she has been shown. The reason she hasn’t risen higher yet is just because she hasn’t been good enough yet. This is how she’s going into this book and this is what will drive many of her decisions — until she comes to an impasse.
“Attack!” she bellowed, fit for a battlefield. “To the princess!”
The Qazāli man muttered something in Shālan, probably a curse, before he shouted, too. A warning to his fellow. To more of them, maybe. Something glinted in his hands.
Touraine spared only half a glance toward the princess. That was what the royal guard was for. Instead, she launched toward the camel man, dropping her pack instead of swinging it at him. Stupid, stupid. Instinct alone saved her life. She lifted her arms just in time to get a slice across her left forearm instead of her throat.
She drew her baton to counterattack, but instead of running in the scant moment he had, the old man hesitated, squinting at her.
“Wait,” he said. “You look familiar.” His Balladairan was suddenly more than adequate.
Touraine shook off his words, knocked the knife from his hand, and tripped him to the ground. He struggled against her with wiry strength until she pinned the baton against his throat. That kept him from saying anything else. She held him there, her teeth bared and his eyes wide while he strained for breath. Behind her, the camel man’s companions clashed with the other soldiers. A young woman’s high-pitched cry. The princess or the assassin?
The old man rasped against the pressure of the baton. “Wait,” he started, but Touraine pressed harder until he lost the words.
Ah, violence. It is an interesting thing that I am fascinated by, especially by who gets to perpetrate it and against whom. There’s a clear power imbalance here, in that Touraine is sanctioned by the state (Balladaire) and is a trained soldier and younger, though this man may be larger. And Touraine in particular is someone who enjoys the power of her body and the things it can do. It keeps her safe. It’s kept her alive up to this point.
Then the docks went silent. The rest of the attackers had been taken down, dead or apprehended. The man beneath her realized it, too, and all the fight sagged out of him.
When they relieved her, she stood to find herself surrounded. The three royal guards, alert, swords drawn; a handful of fancy-looking if spooked civilians; the general—her general. General Cantic. And, of course, the princess.
Heat rose to her face. Touraine knew that some part of her should be afraid of overstepping; she’d just shat on all the rules and decorum that had been drilled into the conscripts for two decades. But the highest duty was to the throne of Balladaire, and not everyone could say they had stopped an assassination. Even if Touraine was a conscript, she couldn’t be punished for that. She hoped. She settled into the strength of her broad shoulders and bowed deeply to the princess.
Yes, I know some of you are just here for the arms…
“I’m sorry to disturb you, Your Highness,” Touraine said, her voice smooth and low.
The princess quirked an eyebrow. “Thank you”—the princess looked to the double wheat-stalk pins on Touraine’s collar—“Lieutenant…?”
“Lieutenant Touraine, Your Highness.” Touraine bowed again. She peeked at the general out of the corner of her eye, but the older woman’s lined face was unreadable.
“Thank you, Lieutenant Touraine, for your quick thinking.”
Is this… a meet-cute?
A small shuffling to the side admitted a horse-faced man with a dark brown tail of hair under his bicorne hat. Captain Rogan sneered over Touraine before bowing to the princess.
There’s a particular casting I associate with this character and so his characteristics changed at the last minute to reflect and perhaps pay a little homage to that — the British officer from the movie The Patriot (Col. Tavington, played by Jason Isaacs) and the British officer from the Outlander TV series (Capt. Randall, played by Tobias Menzies). I apologize to all men with a long dark ponytail who are not utter villains.
“Your Highness, I apologize if this Sand has inconvenienced you.” Before the princess could respond, Rogan turned to Touraine and spat, “Get back to your squad. Form them up like they should have been.”
So much for taking her chance to rise. So much for duty. Touraine sucked her teeth and saluted. “Yes, sir.”
She tightened her sleeve against the bleeding cut on her left arm and went back to her squad, who stood in a tight clump a few yards away from the old man’s camel. The beast huffed with a sound like a bubbling kettle, and a disdainful glob of foamy spittle dripped from its slack lips. Safe enough to say she had made an impression on the locals.
Very unimpressed. Can’t say I blame you, buddy.
And the others? Touraine looked back for another glimpse at the princess and found the other woman meeting her gaze. Touraine tugged the bill of her field cap and nodded before turning away, attempting to appear as unruffled as she could.
When Touraine returned to her squad, Pruett looked uncertain as Rogan handed the older man off to another officer, who led him and the young woman away. “I told you to be careful about attracting attention.”
Touraine smiled, even though her arm stung and blood leaked into her palm. “Attention’s not bad if you’re the hero.”
And what does it mean to be a hero, exactly? Who do you want to be heroic for, Tour? Touraine has definitely grown up on certain stories of heroism and she knows the difference between the heroes and her — she talks about this with another lover of stories later on — but she doesn’t let herself consider what these stories say about her own destined position in the world.
This is one of the great preoccupations of my mind, and I am curious to see where Touraine takes it, and, one day, how her story reflects on the other heroes, anti-heroes, and villains I might right in the future.
That did make Pruett laugh. “Ha! Hero. A Sand? I guess you think the princess wants to wear my shit for perfume, too.”
And there we have the cynic.
Touraine laughed back, and it was tinged with the same frustration and bitterness that talk of their place in the world always was.
This time, when she called for her squad to form up, they did. Gold Squad and the others pulled down their field caps and drew close their coats. The wind was picking up. The sun was rising. The Qazāli dockworkers bent their backs into their work again, but occasionally they glanced at the conscripts, their expressions nervous, scared, suspicious, hateful. At Rogan’s order, she and the conscripts marched to their new posts.
Change was coming. Touraine aimed to be on the right side of it.
I see this moment like a coin flipped into the air, turning, turning while we watch.
Read on to see how the coin falls.
We hope this excerpt and the author’s commentary has whet your appetite to learn more and check out the full novel! C. L. Clark’s The Unbroken is due to be published by Orbit Books in North America and in the UK, on March 23rd, 2021.