BOOK REVIEW: Firebreak

Nicole Kornher-Stace
Saga Press
Copyright 2021 by the author

Mal (short for Mallory) is your typical young adult. She shares a room in a converted hotel with a handful of other young adults, works at assorted jobs like dog-walking, and spends a lot of her free time playing in a “first person shooter” MMORPG where she makes a little income on the side by streaming her sessions.

Mal lives in New Liberty City, a sort of “free city” nominally controlled by Stellaxis Corporation, which is defending the area from attacks by the rival Greenleaf Industries. Stellaxis runs the place as a strict company town, controlling everything – including access to water.

So when Mal gets a strange “sponsorship” offer from a strange woman that will pay her in gallons of water per week, and all she has to do is play the MMORPG well enough to get in-game access to the “avatar” of one of Stellaxis’ supersoldiers, well, it’s hard for her to say no.

Mal’s meeting with her “sponsor” reveals that there’s something odd about Stellaxis’ “supersoldier” program. It’s a simple enough question to ask that one wonders why no one thought of asking “Since you’ve given these people numbers instead of names, why aren’t the numbers consecutive? And why numbers in the first place?”

Kornher-Stace’s afterword says she came up with the story idea “out of the blue”, as it were. If one wants to say it’s a reaction to the crap that was Ready Player One, one is free to do so. Firebreak certainly has none of the flaws of that earlier work. Yes, there’s an EEEvil corporation controlling things. Yes, living conditions are crap. Yes, people escape by playing in a huge online world. But Mal is a decent and likeable protagonist, who does NOT get everything handed to her on a platter. You actually want her to succeed. And while Mal does have the standard Heroes Death Battle Exemption, it’s not because she’s somehow a Chosen One. She’s willing to put herself in danger because she wants to do what’s right, and not because there’s some huge prize at the end. Nor does she spend much time thinking about the consequences to herself. And there’s none of the “I’ll Save You; I’m the Hero!” nonsense, either. Mal doesn’t grandstand; she just wants to get to the bottom of things and get Stellaxis to own up to what it’s done.

That’s what makes this novel work – the solid core of Decency. People are generally good; even Stellaxis isn’t a parody of an evil corporation. At least they’re no worse than a corporation running a company town from our own history. That’s bad enough, to be sure, but they’re no Umbrella Corporation.

Kornher-Stace has done a bang-up job of capturing online culture, without resorting to jargon. There’s a thriving online “economy” in the MMORPG, with people trading and donating in-game items and even real world money and goods to their favorite players. Social media actually works when it comes to getting information out to people, and forming real-life friendships.

There’s a lot of good action that carries you along at a good enough pace so you don’t have time to stop and ask questions. And when you’re done, the ending is just about right – no “happy ever after”, rather the beginning of something that promises a better life – so you can let all those questions slide. No novel is going to be perfect. Firebreak certainly isn’t. But it’s good enough – and very good enough – to be worth your time.

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