This book reads like a corporate war manga as told from the perspective of the plucky ace/aro civilian sidekick who’s the bridge between the corporate super soldiers/heroes and the public kept in the dark about what the evil megacorps are doing, both to the super soldiers (called SpecOps here and given only numbers as identifiers) and to the general populace. Mal is your typical 22nd century 20 year-old, long orphaned in a corporate war, juggling several gig jobs to survive while sharing what was once a hotel room with at least five other people. One of her jobs is live streaming play in BestLife, the massively multiplayer online game where she struggles to make a dent in the leaderboards while playing the War version (as opposed to the Fantasy or Sci-fi settings.) The War version is mapped to the real world where she lives, with the main draw of the setting — besides providing an outlet for people jonesing for realistic violence — being the occasional sightings of the dozen SpecOps NPCs, based on the corporate androids developed by Stellaxis, the corporation that controls water, to combat the mechas of Greenleaf, the rival corporation that controls food.
The SpecOps are both elusive and wildly popular, with fanbases and lines of merchandise both in-game and in the real world. After Mal streams a sighting of 28, she and her best friend and teammate Jessa are summoned by an unknown sponsor to get more up-close footage of the SpecOps. Thing is, their new sponsor B is convinced that the SpecOps aren’t highly realistic androids at all but are actually kids Stellaxis got away with kidnapping and experimenting on because everyone who knew them had died in one of the many devastating attacks on Stellaxis land.
At first, Mal and Jessa refuse to believe B, but take the job because she’s paying in water rations, probably the most valuable currency in New Liberty City. But when B disappears, and Mal runs into the real-life versions of 06 and 22 while looking for her, the two friends realize that maybe Stellaxis hasn’t been telling the entire truth after all, and that there’s far more to B’s story than they’d previously acknowledged.
Mal makes for an unusual heroine: kind but antisocial, determined but not the smartest. Her crush on 22 is never really explained, but she has a hard time explaining herself generally. And honestly sometimes who can explain a crush! Her strongest trait is the fact that she’ll push herself past the point of exhaustion in order to do what’s right, even in the face of overwhelming odds (with my one quibble being that anyone who regularly hikes up and down 6 flights of stairs on the daily has no business calling themselves out of shape, not unless it’s a struggle every time.) Fortunately, Mal is surrounded and supported by some real badasses, including the irrepressible Jessa, as she sets about fomenting a revolution and getting to the bottom of what Stellaxis is doing both to New Liberty City and to her beloved 22.
The social commentary was easily my favorite part of this book, as Nicole Kornher-Stace criticizes the idea of corporate-owned nation-states and the ways in which capitalism and fascism intersect. I also loved that she emphasizes a lesson I’ve only learned in the last year or so, that the adage “a poor craftsman blames his tools” is as much smug bullshit as “money can’t buy happiness.” Bad tools are a handicap in the same way that modern poverty is: not only do they make you think you’re a bad craftsman/undeserving person, they also actively discourage you from trying harder and discovering your true potential. Good tools can be life-changing, and anyone who pretends otherwise is protecting entrenched interests at the expense of everyone else.
That said, Firebreak does suffer from the fact that Mal often feels more like a supporting character than a main. I loved the #OwnVoices representation but found Mal’s awkward, antisocial personality difficult to mesh with. And that’s fine! She’ll definitely connect with lots of people who aren’t me, and the ideas and plot of the book otherwise are both thought-provoking and entertaining, tho it certainly helped to keep in mind the manga concept as I read.
Firebreak by Nicole Kornher-Stace was published May 4 2021 by Saga Press and is available from all good booksellers, including