I found Firebreak purely by chance. I was scrolling through NetGalley recommendations, not really sure what genre I was looking to read, but basically I wanted something to jump out at me. Literally grab me by the scruff of my neck and say, “Read me, you fool!” I couldn’t see anything immediately, but soon after I got an email from NetGalley, singing “Hello! Is it me you’re looking for?” There, slap bang in the body of email was indeed the book I was looking for.
You don’t have to be much of a political commentator to know that the world has gone to hell in a hand basket. Authoritarian, nationalist and populist governments are the norm rather than the exception in practically every economy on the planet. These are scary times, and there doesn’t seem to be a way through the gloom right now. But as bad as it all appears to be, you cannot discount the indomitable nature of humanity. Author Nicole Kornher-Stace‘s first novel for adults is full of this spirit, and it’s badly needed.
It is 2134 and what’s left of the United States of America after ecological and economic disaster is divided up between two super-corporations, Stellaxis Innovations and Greenleaf Industries. Stellaxis controls the water supply, while Greenleaf controls all elements of agriculture. The two are permantly at war with each other but have reached a stalemate with New Liberty City. Mal and her friends live on the outside, in the old town, copped up together in a hotel room. Their water is rationed; power goes off in the evenings; and they work as many jobs as they can to ensure they can pay for the things we take for granted. They have barely enough to get by, but there’s always the chance they might find themselves in a dehydration clinic if they don’t get enough water. A visit there would cost them more than they could pay. To make ends meet, and to keep themselves entertained, Mal and her friends livestream themselves as they game away on SecOps on BestLife, Stellaxis’s wargame. The more successful they are at the game, the more sponsorship they get, coming in the form of cash, weaponry for the game, and credit for water. A chance meeting with one of Stellaxis’s Non-Player Characters (NPC), known as 22, brings Mal and her best friend Jessa in contact with B, a mysterious new sponsor who tells them the true origins of the NPCs.
Firebreak begins in the middle of a livestream and once you settle in and get comfortable with the pace and environment, Nicole throws in a conspiracy that changes the nature of the story and characters. Mal isn’t what you may call a sociable person; she leaves the talking to Jessa, who’s like the manager of their partnership. They’re a duo, with each bringing their special qualities to the table. Jessa narrates their adventures online while Mal racks up the points with kills and bravado. But all this changes when they come to the attention of Stellaxis, and that’s when their lives and the lives of their friends are put in danger.
A good novel, whatever the genre, lives or dies by its characters and character development. Mal and Jessa are introduced as fully-formed individuals and over the course of Firebreak grow in ways they probably thought not possible. All they want to do is live to game another day, but they’re not selfish people. Everything they have, they share with their friends, and this becomes important as the book nears its climax. This selflessness has its rewards. All throughout, Nicole Kornher-Stace treats us to action scenes that don’t hold back on violence or consequence. Our heroes are bloodied but unbowed. Nicole has created a frightening world, one which should serve as a lesson to us all: we are one major disaster away from everything we hold dear and take for granted crashing to the ground around us.
Firebreak is an exhilerating and exciting read, replete with vibrant and conflicted characters, in a world that is both real and unreal. It could be our future. Pray it’s not.
Thank you to NetGalley and the publishers of Firebreak for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review. Nicole Kornher-Stace’s novel is on sale now.