Danika reviews The Unbroken by C.L. Clark

The Unbroken (Magic of the Lost #1) by C.L. Clark

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

This is a thought-provoking, complex book that I’m still mulling over. The Unbroken is a military fantasy about a colonial occupation. It’s based on French on occupation of North Africa, though it’s not–of course–an exact match. There isn’t a lot of sexism in this world: women serve alongside men at all ranks in the military, and they also lead the revolution. It also doesn’t seem to have heteronormativity. There are lots of same-sex couples, and none of them are treated any differently. Don’t let that mislead you, though: this is a brutal colonialist occupation, and while there may not be a lot of sexism or homophobia, racism is a foundational piece of this narrative. The Balladairians also view religion as “uncivilized” and have banned any practice of religion, whether in Balladaire or Qazāl.

Because this is military fantasy, it’s not surprising that this is grim and violent, including hangings and discussion of rape. I sometimes struggled with this novel because of how bleak it got–but that is also an unreasonable criticism of a book about colonialism. It is multi-faceted in its depiction of the realities of colonialism, looking at it from multiple angles. The two main characters are Luca, the Balladairian princess fighting to get her rightful throne that is being occupied by her uncle, and Touraine, a conscript (or “Sand,” pejoratively) who was taken from Qazāl as a child to be made into a Balladairian soldier. They are fascinating, deeply flawed, complicated characters who have a powerful bond despite spending 95% of the story apart. Luca, of course, looks at the occupation of Qazāl from the perspective of the powerful, and she wants to restore peace to prove to her uncle that she is ready to lead. Touraine wants to be a good soldier, to rise in the ranks far enough to be respected despite being a “Sand.” Both begin on the same side of this conflict, but as the novel goes on, we also see how Qazāl citizens see this occupation, and a rebellion is planned.

The most compelling and fraught aspect of The Unbroken, to me, are these two main characters. Luca is a Balladarian (white) bisexual disabled princess–her legs were injured in an accident and she walks with a cane. She wants Balladairian rule in Qazāl to be less violent–but she has no intention of pulling Balladaire out of Qazāl. She wants peace, but as a tool to gaining power. Touraine was taken by the empire when she was young and doesn’t remember her childhood home. Her cohort is the only one made up of “Sands,” and she is fiercely loyal to them. They are in a difficult situation: they’re not Balladarian enough to be trusted by their superiors, but the Qazāl citizens don’t trust them either. They’re always on the front lines, essentially used as cannon fodder, and they have no way to escape. Touraine and the other “Sands” soldiers do have ideological differences, though: Touraine wants to be treated as an equal, assimilated into Balladarian society, while Beau and others want to be free from them. She doesn’t recognize that working hard to become a lieutenant hasn’t saved her from racist disrespect and threats, and that she won’t be able to pull herself up by her bootstraps out of systemic oppression. When they arrive in Qazāl, she hears rumors about her mother being there, but she has no desire to meet her. She thinks of the Qazāl citizens as uncivilized–she’s internalized this racism and thinks she’s “not like other Qazāli.”

At the beginning of the story, I didn’t know what to think of Luca and Touraine. They are interesting, but they’re also both on the side of the colonizers. Was I supposed to be rooting for them and their relationship? That misconception didn’t last long, though. Despite following the rules her entire life and devoting herself to protecting the empire, Touraine ends up in a situation that strips her of her rank and should have also cost her life. Luca steps in and saves her, hiring her as an assistant. This creates a complicated power dynamic between them–even more so than already existed. Touraine still isn’t free: “Luca was as much a jailer as she was a safe bunker.” She’s also disposable for Luca, who wants to use her to further her plans. Other soldiers are also resentful of Touraine’s new cushy life, while she misses them and feels like she’s lost autonomy. Over the course of working together and living in close quarters, Luca and Touraine form a complicated relationship that is mostly made left unexplained by both of them. They are drawn together and will continue to be throughout the entire book, but they don’t have a foundation there. They can’t seem to stay apart or forget about the other, but they never have an equal footing or healthy dynamic. It’s compelling, but it’s also frustrating and disappointing. Luca imagines what they could have been in different circumstances.

I really appreciated Touraine’s story arc, but it was also difficult to read. (Mild spoilers follow) She recognizes how wrong she was about Balladaire and Qazāl. She begins to turn against the power that has always treated her, the other “Sands,” and the Qazāli like dirt. Touraine evolves from trying to further her own career while protecting the “Sands” to looking out for the well-being of this occupied nation as a whole: “This looked like the losing side. It even felt like the losing side. It didn’t feel like the wrong side.” She stops trying to be the “One Good Qazāli:” “She didn’t want Balladairian respect. Not anymore.” At the same time… wow, this was hard to read. I was constantly surprised at how Clark would allow Touraine (and Luca) to make mistakes. Big mistakes. Mistakes with disastrous consequences that she had to live with. At each turn, I could understand their reasoning, but it was painful to read. Things just seemed to get worse and worse, partly because of both Luca and Touraine’s fractured loyalties and priorities. They both say they want peace in Qazāl, but they both have things they value over that (the throne, the Sands), and the choices they make to try to balance those two things tend to blow up in their faces. (Spoiler end here)

Even after writing a thousand words about this book, I’m still not sure how to feel about it. I appreciate it. I think it is a complex book the depicts the messiness and horrors of colonialism. It allows its characters to be incredibly fallible. It doesn’t shy away from the real-life consequences of their actions and of colonialism in general. But I also struggled to finish this book. The bleakness, the toxic relationship between Luca and Touraine, the gut punches of mistakes and their consequences–it wasn’t necessarily a story I wanted to come back to. And at almost 500 pages, it’s not a quick read to power through at that point. That is what it was trying to do, though, and I think it was a great accomplishment. I’m curious about where the trilogy will go, but I’m still on the fence about whether I want to return to this world again. If you want to read post-colonial/anti-colonialism fantasy, though, I highly recommend this one.

Danika reviews Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi

Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi cover

This was such an impressive book that I have been intimidated to write about it! It was longlisted for the Giller Prize, and it was on Canada Reads! (If you’re not Canadian: this is a big deal.)

Trigger warnings for suicide and suicide ideation, miscarriage and child death, as well as rape and child sexual abuse, both for the book and this review.

This is a book about three Nigerian women: Kambirinachi and her twin daughters, Taiye and Kehinde. This is split into four books, which you may have guessed are titled Butter, Honey, Pig, and Bread. In the first book, we’re introduced to Kambirinachi. She is an obinje, which is an Ebo term for spirits who are said to plague a mother by repeatedly being born and dying early. She finds being alive boring; it makes her restless. She can hear her kin all around her, always calling her back, so dying is a simple thing. After she sees how much her mother is tortured by her miscarriages and early childhood deaths, though, Kambirinachi decides to stick with life, much to her Kin’s disapproval.

We then jump to Taiye and Kehinde visiting their mother as adults. It has been a long time since the sisters spoke to each other, and the three of them have drifted apart due to an unnamed Bad Thing that happened. We find out that this bad thing was the rape of Kehinde as a child while her sister stayed silent under the bed. They have never openly talked about this, and it’s driven a wedge between them. The whole story spirals around this point, and we see their lives before and after this point out of sequence.

Although this isn’t told chronologically, it flows smoothly and is easy to follow. I hardly noticed that it was jumping around in time, because it always seemed like a natural transition. We follow each of their perspectives, and they all feel realistic and deeply flawed, which I think is the strongest part of the novel.

Kambirinachi struggles with life. Her daughter describes her as “beautiful in an impossible way, a delicate thing. Too soft for this world.” She loves her children, but falls into a deep depression after her husband (their father) dies, unable to take care of them or herself.

Taiye and Kehinde define themselves in opposition to each other. Kehinde feels inferior, like Taiye is the perfect twin and she is made up of the castoffs, especially because Taiye is the thinner twin. Despite having a husband and being successful, she always feels as if she’s in her shadow. Taiye, on the other hand, constantly feels rejected by Kehinde. As a child, she relied on her sister to talk for her. Now she feels lost in the world, overcome by her voracious appetite both for food and sex. She is constantly thinking about the women that she’s been with, but none of them seem to last.

One of her exes mailed a box of Taiye’s letters to Kehinde–except that Taiye never meant to actually send them. When they meet again, she avoids talking about the letters or acknowledging how painful she’s found their separation. This is an exploration of these flawed people and their complicated, layered relationships with each other.

Although it deals with difficult subject matter, it feels hopeful. There are plenty of fractured relationships here, but there are also supportive, kind, gentle relationships with healthy communication that makes me swoon. There’s also, unsurprisingly, a food theme. Each of the foods in the title shows up repeatedly, with slightly different meanings: a bee hive is a life-altering outing, a secret indulgence, or a staple of the household. Characters cook for each other when they don’t have the words to explain themselves

I highly recommend Butter Honey Pig Bread for fans of literary fiction, queer books, food writing, and anyone who wants a good story. If you’re on the fence, here is a video with the author reading excerpts–I’m sure you’ll quickly be hooked.

Danika reviews Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta

undertheudalatree

Under the Udala Trees is set in Nigeria during and in the aftermath of the civil war. Ijeoma is sent to live in a safer area of the country with people she’s never meant. She acts as a servant to earn her keep. When she befriends a girl from another ethnic group–in fact, from the community on the other side of the war–this relationship is only barely tolerated. When it’s discovered that her and Amina’s relationship has changed into a romance, Ijeoma’s life is irrevocably changed.

This is not a light read. Under the Udala Trees deals both with living through war and dealing with brutal homophobia. In fact, these two types of violence get intertwined. We first meet Ijeoma in her childhood, when she lived with her mother and father. We see how war devastates her family and eventually takes her father from them. This is just the precursor to her later struggles with a culture and family that refuses to allow her to be an authentic version of herself. Her mother stresses the importance of marriage and makes her study the Bible daily, stressing any passages that can be interpreted as forbidding same sex relationships.

What I found especially difficult was how much Ijeoma internalized this messages even when didn’t consciously believe them. She questions how the Bible is being interpreted and doesn’t see how her actions or feelings could be sinful, but she still feels guilt and doubt. That is the damage a hateful statement repeated over and over can do. She ends up feeling the best parts of love and intimacy juxtaposed with shame and self-consciousness.

This does feel like a bleak read through most of the book. Ijeoma does not have a lot of options available to her, not just as a lesbian, but as a woman–and an unmarried one at that. Every choice that she makes seems to come with awful consequences. I don’t think I’ll be able to forget the scene where she and other gay friends hide in a bunker left over from the war in order to avoid a crowd intent on punishing or even killing any queer people that they find. It shows how much Ijeoma is still living within her own war.

I’ll admit that my first impression when I read this book was that it felt like a coming out story from earlier decades, mostly because the extreme backlash as well as the way the plot is mostly centered around her sexuality. But I had to reexamine that reaction when I got to the brief author’s note, which explains that in 2014 Nigeria criminalized same-sex relationships, and that Nigeria is the second most religious country in the world. With that context, the story line makes a lot more sense, and it reminded me that although I am lucky enough to live in a community that is fairly accepting of queer people, my situation is not universal. For many people, that backlash is the reality of their coming out, and these stories are therefore needed just as much now as they were in earlier decades. This is why we need more stories of the queer experience from a global viewpoint, and Under the Udala Trees is a necessary step forward down that path.

Maryam reviewed Reclaiming the L-Word: Sappho’s Daughters Out in Africa edited by Allyn Diesel

I just finished Reclaiming the L-Word: Sappho’s Daughters Out in Africa, edited by Allyn Diesel. It is a wonderful anthology of personal essays, poetry, and photographs, each African woman telling the tale of what it is to be queer in South Africa. They range from the heartwarming – Yulinda Noortman’s description of shopping for wedding fabric with her bride-to-be, in “The Dog, The Cat, The Parrot and the Pig and Other Tales” – to the heartwrenching: Keba Sebetoane’s “Who Are You to Tell Me What I Am?”, the brief, calamitous tale of her struggle with rape and the flawed system that kept her, and so many other women, from justice. My favorite was “I Have Truly Lost a Woman I Loved”, which features the wonderful photography of Zanele Muholi – one of her photographs graces this volume’s cover – and is a loving essay to her late mother. I only wished that some of the photographs she wrote about had been included in this book. Although some of the essays may begin in a similar fashion – I was married to a man, and then… or When I was a child…, there is something in the collection that everyone should be able to appreciate, and should serve as food for thought both in terms of social justice and how we relate to other women, no matter what their place in the queer spectrum.

Allysse reviews The World Unseen by Shamim Sarif


The World Unseen is set in South Africa in the 1950’s and relates the story of two women – Miriam and Amina – and the way their lives impact each others.

Let me start this review by saying that I love this book. After a lot of trouble to get it from my library I read it in two days, unable to put it down unless I really had to.

What I love most about the novel is that Shamim Sarif takes the time to explore the two main characters but also their family and surroundings. The story is divided into three main sections and we can feel those separations quite well when reading the novel. However it is a smooth and logical process. Every part is introduced and possible only from the actions and developments of the previous sections.

Through the pages we are introduced to a culture, an environment, and we feel as a foreigner getting to understand an unfamiliar place. All characters’ point of views are explored objectively. We may dislike a character but it is from our own choices as we are given the key to understand them and their behaviour.

The author takes us into a different era and a different culture but it feels like we are with the characters, getting to know them and sharing their lives. We can sense the political background of South Africa in the 1950’s. It is fully present but only through the lives and actions of the characters. It is not emphasized or put in the front line of the text, it is simply there as a fact of life of those characters.

Shamim Sarif is a very skillful writer to set the tone of a character, a culture, and a place. She never uses many words but in a few lines, through a few gestures and thoughts, she conveys all the meaning necessary for the reader to understand each character and its motivation.

There is one minor aspect of the novel I didn’t enjoy much. It is the use of non-english words. I wouldn’t have minded so much if a glossary or footnotes had been included to give a translation or definition of the terms. Most of the time the context provides a sort of definition but the words mostly remained vague to me and I was feeling a bit irritated at not understanding them fully.

All in all I highly recommend this novel for its numerous interesting characters as well as for the discovery of another culture. I am not an expert about Idians in South Africa in the 1950’s, but it does feel like Shamim Sarif transcribed the feel of a period and culture very well.

On a none literary note, I also highly recommend the film. Directed by Shamim Sarif herself, it is very respectful of the book but the focus is put more on Amina and Miriam than in the novel. The book really is more about them and their environment, their families and friends, taking the time to explore the life of behaviour of all.