Thursday, August 10, 2023

Review: The Faithless by C.L. Clark

We've had Touraine's Arms, now it's time for... Luca's Legs

How do you follow up on the iconic Touraine's Arms cover illustration for The Unbroken? Why, with Luca's Legs of course! And Luca's slouch. Also, Luca's unpleasant little princess smirk. Luca's strained trouser fabric, and its several folds. In this analysis of Luca as portrayed by Tommy Arnold on the cover of The Faithless, I will... wait, uh, remind me what I was doing here again? The text! Yes, I remember now, the text. Of the book. Let's tear our eyes away from the cover for a minute and talk about the insides of The Faithless, the middle volume in C. L. Clark's trilogy about empire, resistance, and extremely handsome ladies. 

(If you're new to this series, and wondering whether The Unbroken will be your thing to start with, I covered that in Strange Horizons so go and check that out instead. I start that one out by talking about Touraine's Arms, so there's a pattern emerging here, and very correctly so in my opinion.)

The Faithless begins in the middle of the political reorganisation that began at the end of The Unbroken. The colonising nation of Balladaire has chosen to pull out of Qazāl and recognise its independence, ending decades of oppressive rule. The treaty for this has been negotiated between Princess Luca, who had gone to govern the colony in a bid to secure her ascension to the throne in place of her regent Uncle, and a new leadership of former rebels. Among those rebels is Touraine: Qazāli by birth, stolen from her home and raised as a soldier by Balladaire, defected after realising that her coloniser superiors will never see her as anything more than a tool, and now the heir to a magical power which she isn't sure how to use. Through the events of The Unbroken, Touraine and Luca are well acquainted, by which I mean "Luca tried to use Touraine as a tool, Touraine had a severe case of divided loyalties and eventually decided not to go with the brainwashing coloniser, in theory Luca has worked her way around to respecting that". Also, they have absolutely scorching sexual chemistry every time they get within 50 metres of each other, and both of them continue to sometimes mistake this for mutual trust and respect. Luca mistakes her horny feelings for respect so much that she requests the Qazāli appoint Touraine as Ambassador to the Balladairan court, and the Qazāli, seeing in this an opportunity to ensure Luca upholds the terms of their treaty, are happy to send Touraine into the lions den. See, Luca has every intention of honouring her treaty, but she's also still not the Queen, and her Uncle is using the political leverage he has gained from her "failure" in Qazāl to force a trial of competence and push her out of the succession entirely.

The events of The Faithless therefore mostly revolve around the Balladairan court, as Luca struggles to build political alliances and ascend the throne and Touraine struggles to gain respect as a representative of a former colony, to improve the lot of Qazāli who have settled in Balladaire, to protect the people in her delegation, and to field the varied requests for help from Luca. One of the more frustrating elements of The Unbroken was the extensive list of bad decisions and reversals from Touraine, even though they made intellectually as a portrayal of a woman stuck between the indoctrination of a colonial upbringing and a birth culture that views her with ambivalence because of her proximity to colonial power. In The Faithless, Touraine's decisions are similarly complex and still lead to Bad Times sometimes, but they come from a foundation of wanting what is best for Qazāl over Balladaire even when she doesn't know how to achieve that in the Balladairan court, and the extent to which helping Luca achieve her ambitions will be good for her own country (and, relatedly, to what extent she's doing it for horny reasons). Luca and Touraine are still far from being on an equal footing in this book, and that imbalance permeates their every interaction. But Touraine's greater confidence in herself, and her clearer recognition of the power imbalance, add a new dynamic to their relationship and, frankly, make it easier to enjoy its progression without being consumed with annoyance over Luca's exploitation. Their relationship is still deeply fucked up - and that's the point - but it's marginally less "Touraine, please just run away, Touraine, no, TOURAINE", and I found that added to my enjoyment of the story.

While it's difficult not to miss Qazāl, and some of the characters who we leave there, Balladaire makes for an equally fascinating setting, full of intriguing side characters both new and returning. First off, the aesthetics are wonderful: Balladaire is French inspired, and Clark kits out her sapphic elites in masculine French court outfits with plenty of mention of sword hilts. While we spend much of our time watching elite political machinations there's also exploration of broader sociopolitical dynamics, including Qazāli migrants who feel oppression in Balladaire is a better situation than economic uncertainty in their own country, and anti-monarchist sentiment among the broader population. One of Luca's plans to gain power involves rediscovering the "lost" magic of Balladaire, whose eradication was part of the country's colonial narrative: magic is uncivilised, science is civilised, therefore scientific Balladaire needs to go to other countries which still have their magic and replace it with good clean scientific thinking (and, of course, harness that magic for their own military use, but that bit's not in the school curriculum). It would be a spoiler to say how this plot thread develops, but the wrinkles this adds to the worldbuilding are so deliciously "oh damn, of course" that I had to scream out loud for a bit after Luca figures it out. The Faithless also spends some time fleshing out Masridān, another region under Balladairan colonial rule whose people are of the same ethnic group as Qazāl, through the eyes of Touraine's former comrade and lover Pruett, who has been sent to build alliances but finds little immediate aid among the city's leadership.

If you liked The Unbroken, I think you're going to be very satisfied with where Clark takes things here, and how well the table is laid for the end of the trilogy (read: how very, very fucked our girls are). I, for one, can't wait to see whose body parts end up provoking thirst on the cover next time.

Posted by: Adri Joy, Nerds of a Feather Senior Co-Editor, @adrijjy on Twitter

Reference: Clark, C.L. The Faithless [Orbit 2023]