Book Review: Firebreak by Nicole Kornher-Stace
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 2.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Saga Press (May 4, 2021)
Length: 416 pages
Opening on a not-too-distant future, Firebreak follows Mallory, AKA Nycorix when she’s online, a gamer who has recently turned to streaming in the hopes of making some extra money to afford the basic necessities of life. Following the corporate war, distribution of all resources has come under the control of the mega-companies, including access to technology, food, and even water, which is particularly scarce. Mal lives in a hotel room with eight other young adults who were also orphaned during the war, one of them being Jessa, her best friend. Together, the two women play a massively multiplayer online war game called BestLife, where they stream themselves killing enemy combatants. But one of the most profitable activities—not to mention a surefire way to gain a ton of subscribers—is to catch a glimpse of the various SpecOps agents who are in game, celebrity super-soldiers created and owned by the corporation Stellaxis.
One day, Mal and Jessa receive an offer of sponsorship out of nowhere, from a mysterious benefactor who wants them to gather as much information as they can on these super-soldiers. In doing so though, Mal discovers a horrifying truth—the SpecOps operatives they see in game are actually real-life people, kids who lost everything into the war and forcibly recruited to work for Stellaxis via torture and the use of augments. At first, Mal and Jessa reluctant to believe any of it, but then their sponsor abruptly disappears, confirming their suspicions of a much deeper and diabolical conspiracy. The plot thickens as they encounter two of the super-soldiers in real life, further propelling the two friends down a path of danger and uncertainty. Mal wants to do the right thing and expose Stellaxis, but what can she do when the enemy is an all-powerful entity that has full control of everything in her life?
It pains me to say this, because my geeky gamer heart loved the MMO aspects of Firebreak, but the truth is, the gaming element was probably the only thing that was done well. Everything else felt a bit half-baked and shoddily executed. To its credit, the book did start out on the right foot, kicking things off with a dynamic sequence in its introduction which featured a flurry of action and gaming terms. I felt like I was with my people when it came to Mal and Jess—two kickass female gamers who knew their stuff and were driven to win.
But pretty soon, the cracks began to show. It first began with my opinion with of Mal, which swiftly plummeted as I got to know her better through her interactions with Jessa and their roommates. Now, I’m all for an anti-social and introverted protagonist and believe they can make for very interesting character studies if written well. But Mal’s personality was off-putting almost from the beginning, unnecessarily snide with her comments and just all around bad-tempered and irritable, often taking her troubles out on others. She’s also not the most competent, and half the time she doesn’t even know what she’s doing. My next point of criticism might seem strange, since I’ve read books that are much worse when it comes to this, but man, after a while, I got so sick of the characters’ endless cussing. It’s one thing if it’s done creatively or adds to the dialogue, but here it just felt like bad writing and made everyone come off as juvenile and dim-witted. Plus, this story already had a vague YA vibe, and ironically, the swearing made things feel even more puerile.
Fortunately, that’s probably the worse of it. The other aspects of the book were pretty good, if a little underdeveloped, as I’d mentioned before. For instance, I think the concept of real-life super-soldiers being kidnapped as children and forced to become in-game SpecOps characters is an intriguing one, though a lot of questions remain, since the narrative fails to provide the clearest explanations. The dystopic setting was also well-imagined, but again we have crucial details lacking, as historical events like the corporate war and its consequences on society are painted with a broad brush, leaving readers to puzzle out the logic of some of these effects by themselves.
Still, despite its flaws, Firebreak was quite honestly a fun book. Had we gotten a more palatable protagonist, I’m even positive I would have given this novel a higher rating. In the end though, a satisfying reading experience for me always begins with the characters, and being put off by Mal probably affected my enjoyment. That said, I think I’m in the minority when it comes to my feelings. Not all readers will have the problems I had with the main character, and ultimately, Firebreak may provide a great read for fans of dystopian world-building and sci-fi action stories about gaming.