I’ve been wanting to read something by Nicole Kornher-Stace ever since her first book Archivist Wasp came out. As tends to happen to us voracious readers, buying books is much easier than reading them and sometimes that means a publication we were super excited about remains on the TBR for way too long. After Firebreak, I’ll be sure to pick up Stace’s other novels, however, because her fiction really works for me.
by Nicole Kornher-Stace
Published: Saga Press, 2021
eBook: 416 pages
Audiobook: 13 hours 42 minutes
My rating: 7.5/10
Opening line: The first time in weeks i see a SecOps NPC up close, I’m coming up on my daily thousand, my mind is long past numb from the repetition, and between that and the dehydration and the lack of sleep, I’m pretty sure I’m starting to hallucinate.
Like everyone else she knows, Mallory is an orphan of the corporate war. As a child, she lost her parents, her home, and her entire building in an airstrike. As an adult, she lives in a cramped hotel room with eight other people, all of them working multiple jobs to try to afford water and make ends meet. And the job she’s best at is streaming a popular VR war game. The best part of the game isn’t killing enemy combatants, though—it’s catching in-game glimpses of SecOps operatives, celebrity supersoldiers grown and owned by Stellaxis, the corporation that runs the America she lives in.
Until a chance encounter with a SecOps operative in the game leads Mal to a horrifying discovery: the real-life operatives weren’t created by Stellaxis. They were kids, just like her, who lost everything in the war, and were stolen and augmented and tortured into becoming supersoldiers. The world worships them, but the world believes a lie.
The company controls every part of their lives, and defying them puts everything at risk—her water ration, her livelihood, her connectivity, her friends, her life—but she can’t just sit on the knowledge. She has to do something—even if doing something will bring the wrath of the most powerful company in the world down upon her.
Firebreak is a book with so much to discover. Mallory is a gamer, in the sense that she – along with her best friend Jessa – streams her adventures in the most popular VR game in the hopes of gettin genough donations from viewers to supply another week’s worth of water. Chances of being watched and getting those donations are much higher when you manage to catch a SecOps operative in-game. These revered non-playable characters are based on the real-life operatives who helped win the war between Stellaxis and Greenleaf, the two corporations who managed to buy everything else and remained as the sole players vying for the right to rule America. There’s no government, water is the most precious commodity, and life is pretty tough for Mallory and the other people living in old town.
The story kicks off when Mallory and Jessa are offered a job that sounds too good t be true. In return for enough water to keep them alive and healthy for many months, they are supposed to help the mysterious woman named B find out the truth behind the operatives. B has good reason to believe that, unlike what Stellaxis says, the operatives weren’t grown in a lab, but were rather once regular human children who were stolen, enhanced, manipulated, and trained into the supersoldiers they are now. Those that are still alive, that is. And with that begins an adventure that’s part cyberpunk, part corporate conspiracy, part dystopia, and part action movie.
I immediately knew that I would love this book. Seriously, the moment I started reading – or rather listening – the writing style was so engaging that I prepared myself for many a late night and lots of “one more chapter” moments. I was not wrong. The central mystery of the book wasn’t even that exciting as it’s revealed very early on in the story, but there is so much more than just discovering that the evil coproration that makes people pay for water (!) has done some horrible things in the past, including torture and kidnapping.
What makes this so compelling is, on the one hand, the incredible world building. Kornher-Stace sets up a real world that’s not super original but with the added layer of VR gaming, of operatives who are treated like celebrities, both in the real world and in-game where it’s just avatars based on their personalities, it becomes something special. There are intricacies to the game they’re playing and the author managed to explain them, set up the rules, and make me care about our protagonist’s gaming success all without slowing down the plot.
On the other hand, the mix of themes and plot points worked really well for me. While it’s not technically YouTube or Twitch that the girls (and many other peole in this world) are streaming on, the mechanics are the same. Internet fame is tricky, social media can be a horror show, and just like in our world, even if it’s “only” online, what happens there has real life consequences! I loved how the author explored that world wihtout ever judging it. She shows both positive and less positive sides, she shows how manipulative it all can be, how fake, how meaningless. But then we also see how the internet and social media can be a source of strength, of peple connecting in order to reach a common goal.
The characters were also fantastic. Mallory isn’t your perfect streamer because she’s a little bit awkward, doesn’t feel too keen on talking to hundreds of audience members, and generally just wants to concentrate on playing the game. Which just means that pairing up with her friend Jessa works liek a charm. Jessa is outgoing, good at narrating their gaming stream, and always knows what to say. She also happens to be a real friend to Mallory and seeing those two interact lifted the whole book up to another level.
Which leaves the operatives. I must admit I was quite taken with them! The mystery surrounding them, the rarity with which one could meet them in-game, the star struck moment when you see one in the real world. Nicole Kornher-Stace’s writing is so damn good, it made me feel just like Mallory when she comes across two actual operatives. Without entering spoiler territory, the operatives are also the reason this book struck an emotional chord with me, especially as their backstory is revealed and more and more pieces of the truth come to light. That and Mallory’s friendships are the heart of the tale.
If you feel like reading a sci-fi book that tackles serious topics but still delivers a thriller-like plot with plenty of action, cool battles, major female friendships, and great writing, then this is for you.
MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Damn good!