Thursday, April 29, 2021

Review: Firebreak by Nicole Kornher-Stace

Firebreak by Nicole Kornher-Stace
Gallery/Saga Press
Publication Date: May 4th, 2021
Hardcover. 412 pages.

About Firebreak:

"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 SpecOps operatives, celebrity supersoldiers grown and owned by Stellaxis, the corporation that runs the America she lives in. 

Until a chance encounter with a SpecOps 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 that completely took me by surprise by how much intensity, heart, and hope it had wrapped up in an action-packed, highly engaging story. At the outset, Firebreak appears to be a story about a VR gamer stuck working multiple jobs just to get by in a world where water is scarce to come by and essentially owned by an enormous corporate company. Once you dive deeper in, however, it starts to become more apparent that there is a lot more going on here (not that what was mentioned previously wasn't enough!). Within the game are 'SpecOps' operatives who are in-game versions of real-life 'superhero'-like figures that exist in the real world and battle some of the pretty crazy tech monsters that threaten different places. 

I was slightly hesitant going into Firebreak because I felt like this was a setup I've read more than once before and one that can be pretty hit or miss–'gaming stories' aren't always a hit for me, no matter how much I wish they were–and I'm glad to say I was entirely misled with my hesitance because this book grabbed me from the first page and didn't let go until I put the book down. The VR game and water scarcity situation may be the starting point for everything that happens in this book, but they are at the same time not even close to being what this book is about.

Firebreak has an incredible protagonist and supporting cast of characters. Mallory (aka Mal) was such a well-crafted character who felt undeniably real and full of life. She struggles with a lot of conflicts that are both internal and external and that made it easy to connect with. I absolutely loved Mal's initially quiet bravery that turned into so much larger than herself; I found her gradual shift from a gamer just trying to make it into someone fighting for what is right extremely well-executed and done in a way that felt authentic. There was no overnight shift, but rather a gradual realization that shifted into an unavoidable need to stop living according to the way they were used to. 
Although we only follow a single perspective from Mal, the supporting characters in this book still held their own in the scenes they held. 22 is arguably the most prominent character outside of Mal's incredibly loyal and amazing best friend, Jessa, and I appreciated how Kornher-Stace slowly introduced us to him without overdoing it. The other characters all seemed to have distinct personalities that helped them to stand out and have interactions with Mal and one another that felt realistic. (Also, if you are someone who enjoys reading about backstories, Kornher-Stace has a short story in Uncanny Magazine featuring some background on the SpecOps figures from Firebreak.)

There are a lot of books out there that deal with a single person or group attempting to buck the system and essentially change the world. Although all the messages in those books are great, I often find the way that they are conveyed a bit cheesy and over-done, and I didn't get that feeling at all while reading Firebreak. I really felt inspired by this book and by seeing the characters take a stand. I think I especially appreciated how things felt a bit more realistic in the sense that when the corporation attempted to invalidate Mal and the things she said, there were still people out there who supported her and/or had 'receipts' to prove she wasn't bad. It felt like a sharp contrast to other books where the person rebelling is immediately branded an outcast and left to fend for their own--in this book, there were people there to back our protagonist up and band together with her to stay strong, and that was really important to me. I also really appreciated how Kornher-Stace highlighted the fact that being a 'martyr' for a cause or standing up for something has grave consequences and is not at all as glorious as it may often appear, because that is a cost  that I think a lot of people don't think about or consider all the time. It takes a lot to not back down, and I loved watching how Mal navigated this terrifying journey.

One other notable aspect of this book that I think worth mentioning is how well-written it was in general. There is a lot of information to be learned in this book, including gameplay, world-building, and a general understanding of the culture that exists in a world dominated by water-hoarding mega corporations. Somehow, though, Kornher-Stace managed to convey all of the information in a way that felt mostly natural and easy to follow. There's a decent bit of info-dumping, but it was the good sort of info-dumping that I could follow along with. I also found the gameplay itself surprisingly entertaining; it's easy for me to get a bit bored or bogged down in gameplay sequences, but it was written in a way that allowed me to actually understand what was going on and be able to picture everything in my head in a way that I don't always get in other books. The pacing was also spot on, which only helped with all the aforementioned elements. There was plenty of action in this book, but it's balanced out with some great character development and scenes focused on internal struggles and of Mal and relationships with those around her.

This book ended up being a lot more emotional and inspiring than I expected it to be. Kornher-Stace hit all the right notes in conveying just how momentous some of the steps the characters took were. If you like sci-fi, well-written characters with great personality, uprisings, or just a compelling story in general, then be sure to pick up a copy of Firebreak! Overall, it was a five-star read for me.
 *I received a copy of Firebreak courtesy of the publisher in exchange for an honest review.* 

Buy the book: Amazon | IndieBound

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