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Why You Need to Read: “Firebreak”


By: Nicole Kornher-Stace                                                      Audiobook: 13 hours 42 minutes

Published: May 4, 2021                                                          Narrated by: Carlotta Brentan

Genre: Science Fiction/Dystopian/Cyberpunk

            Out of the twelve real SecOps operatives, only three—06, 08, and 22—are still among the living. The other nine—05, 28, 02, 33, 38, 11, 21, 42, and 17—are dead. We lost 11 and 21 earlier this year: 11 just after Valued Customer Appreciation Day and 21 just before Halloween. And we could probably have eliminated 05 from our list in general because there’s a probably not much we’re likely to learn about her that B doesn’t already know, or think she knows, (0006).

            Some of you may (or may not) recall my “efforts” to receive an ARC of this book. In a previous post, I mentioned how whenever NetGalley announces e-galleys available as “Read Now,” it means nothing when your request has been either rejected or pending. Luckily for me, the author of Firebreak—Nicole Kornher-Stace—saw her book mentioned in my post and had an ARC sent to me. I did manage to read (and to listen to the audiobook) during its release year, and it was one of my favorite speculative fiction books of 2021. Yes, it took me longer than I wanted to start writing this review—my apologies both to the author and to the publisher—but, here is it, my long-awaited review of Firebreak

            Mallory is a full-time dogwalker and a part-time streamer of the wargame, SecOps, on Bestlife. Mallory, her friend—Jessa, and millions of other individuals are surviving in a capitalist society in the near future of what’s left of the United States of America. Every resource from water to electricity is rationed into meager shares to the point where people cannot bathe on a regular basis. Mallory’s day job earns her credits for food and her night job earns her water rations. Mallory does enjoy gaming, she’s even a fan of one of the “super-soldiers” who resembles the actual SecOps characters who work the streets whenever riots breakout, which is often. Mallory and Jessa have managed to gain a small, yet devoted, following for their livestreams. In fact, a potential sponsor wants to meet both Mallory and Jessa. This is the news both of the young women have been hoping for because a sponsor means more access to resources and to more followers (some of whom can give donations to them). However, when they meet the sponsor, there is a catch. The sponsor wants them to track down the whereabouts of a missing girl. A girl who went missing around the same time an attack killed Mallory’s parents. A girl who resembles one of the SecOps characters. Mallory and Jessa accept the sponsorship with the condition that they look into solving the girl’s—Elena’s—disappearance. Mallory is able to make the career shift to professional gamer, which gives her more time to investigate a possible connection between Elena’s disappearance and the SecOps. Yet, the deeper Mallory delves into Stellaxis’ immoral practices and the more her reputation amongst the gaming community grows, Mallory finds herself a target for both mega-corporations. Mallory—as disadvantaged as she is—is a strong-willed individual who wants nothing more than to seek the truth and to survive. 

            There are 2 plots in this book. The first plot revolves around the 2 megacorps who control the remaining U.S.A., and who are in a heated war with each other which in turn sees their civil war carry out into the civilian population who become innocent bystanders and unwilling casualties in their attacks. All of this happened after the Polar Caps melted, which submerged 5 U.S. States, led to the disbandment of the U.S. Government, and the rise of corporate domination. Now, the two megacorps—Stellaxis Innovations and Greenleaf—control and fight over the remaining 45 U.S. States. This ongoing war has caused numerous atrocities—known and unknown—and harsh living conditions for those who are not “fortunate” enough to work for either corporation. In Mallory’s case, the war led to her parents’ deaths. The second plot is Mallory’s investigation into Stellaxis and their potential involvement with Elena’s disappearance, and it’s much worse than Mallory, or Jessa, expected. Not to mention, investigating any immoral and/or criminal ongoings within either Stellaxis or Greenleaf does not lead to a “positive” outcome to the parties investigating them. People have died for “disobeying” them; and yet, Mallory continues her campaign (and her investigation) into Stellaxis knowing the consequences. There is 1 subplot in this novel, and it involves the SecOps and Elena. If Elena “resembled” one of the SecOps, then does that mean there were other children who might have gone missing as well? What does this mean for the remaining SecOps? This subplot is essential for the plots because it presents the devious methods the megacorps perform and it is the catalyst for Mallory and her actions. 

            The narrative is presented in 1st person from Mallory’s point-of-view. The sequence is presented in the present tense from Mallory’s stream-of-consciousness. In addition, Mallory’s memories and livestream footage play a huge role in the narrative as well. Although video footage of any sort can be altered, Mallory refuses to do this because she has nothing to hide. All of these components and characteristics make Mallory a reliable narrator. 

            The style Nicole Kornher-Stace uses in Firebreak is a blend of dystopia—“an unpleasant and disastrous world in which ominous practices and tendencies of the present led to”—and cyberpunk—“events of the story take place partially or entirely within a ‘virtual reality’ with computers and/or computer networks.” There are numerous examples of dystopian fiction (i.e. A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World, Blackfish City, Parable of the Sower, etc.,) and cyberpunk fiction (i.e. Infomocracy, Akira, etc.,), but more individuals are most likely familiar with cyberpunk movies such as Blade Runner and Tron. Firebreak is not the first work of fiction to blend both of these sci-fi subgenres, but it is one of the more recent books like it. The narrative moves back-and-forth from mentioning lack of water to everyone using the Internet exclusively for everything from currency to newsfeed. The mood in this novel is corporate greed and power. This novel presents the dangers of when mega corporations become the government power; they continue to fight for complete dominance over everyone and everything else. The tone in this novel is revolution. The secrets and the conspiracies unearthed throughout the narrative adds to the unpleasantness many civilians suffer through on both sides. Why shouldn’t they fight for the resources and for better treatment. 

            The appeal for Firebreak have been mostly positive with an almost 4-star rating on Goodreads from over 2,000 ratings. While I want more sci-fi readers to read this book, I understand this book is not for everyone. This book is part of the science fiction canon, but while many fans find dystopia to be intriguing, not all fans are interested in cyberpunk. I believe if more people read this book, then they might enjoy it as much as I did. In fact, fans and readers of Ready, Player One should read this book. They might prefer Firebreak over Ready, Player One. I did! I went back-and-forth between listening to the audiobook and reading the book. Carlotta Brentan was an excellent choice for the narrator. Other audiobook listeners will enjoy her performance of her narration of this book. As I mentioned before, Firebreak was one of My Favorite Speculative Fiction Books of 2021, and it is one of the Sci-Fi nominees in this year’s Subjective Chaos Kind of Awards. We will see how it does against the other nominees. 

            Firebreak is a strong science fiction novel which blends gaming and corporate greed within a very believable dystopian setting (which, could be our likely future within the next couple of decades). The shocking twists within the narrative does leave an opportunity for a (potential) sequel, but it is still a strong standalone book. This book is WAY BETTER than Ready, Player One; yes, I said it!

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5. out of 5). 

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