If you’ve not yet read Nicole Kornher-Stace’s novels Archivist Wasp and Latchkey, I’d like to strongly encourage you to do so. It’s not because they’re connected to Firebreak—to my surprise and delight, they are, though Firebreak is a standalone—but because they’re just so good. Immersive, dark, vivid, imaginative and eerie, they follow one young woman in a post-apocalyptic world where her task is two-pronged: survive, and catch ghosts.
Firebreak is set in a world not yet turned totally apocalyptic—but close. In 2134, two corporations run what used to be the U.S. Stellaxis and Greenleaf are in perpetual conflict, and citizens are regularly caught in the middle, leaving shattered cities and families. Mallory is one of those orphaned by the war. She lives in a hotel room with a handful of other orphans, all scraping together an existence from odd jobs and whatnot, counting the gallons of water they’re allotted each week.
Mal’s world is a bleak magic-mirror version of ours, an all-too-believable extrapolation from the climate, political and otherwise, we live in. But we don’t have SecOps, the immersive game in which Mal spends much of her free time. Players in the expansive digital world stream their gameplay, earning fans and sponsors and gifts from those who watch. If they’re really lucky, they might stumble across one of the game’s celebrity NPCs, the digital counterparts of real-life soldiers who are known, in life and in the game, only by numbers. In the real world, the numbered soldiers fight for Stellaxis—and serve as the face of the war’s marketing. In the game, finding an NPC can be a ticket to more viewers, more in-game gifts, more attention. More water, too.
Mal and her friend Jessa are low-level players and streamers. Jessa’s the chipper, outgoing one who talks with their viewers; Mal is less social, more focused on her game and on getting a glimpse of 22, the NPC who intrigues her. There’s nothing really special about Mal or Jessa, except that they happen to be the people who stumble on NPC 08, out in the middle of nowhere in game-space. And that action gets someone’s attention.
Firebreak is part mystery, part gamer-geek-out, part scream of rage at corporate culture and capitalist greed. Mal knows her world is a mess, but she’s never seen any hope of it changing—let alone hoped that she could change it. She’s deeply aware of how the lives of her roommates are marked by grief and trauma, that all of their families were destroyed by the powers that rule her world. And when she has a chance to act, to help people, she’s believably torn between fear and the certainty that the scary thing is the right thing to do.
I’m being specifically vague on plot here because part of the delight of reading Firebreak is unraveling secrets along with Mal, whose oh-shit-what-have-I-gotten-myself-into-now narration is immersive, endearing, and wry and, as things go ever further sideways, increasingly intense in a way that’s perfectly matched to the book’s video-game aspect. The intensity of the plot is carefully balanced by the strength and depth of the friendships among Kornher-Stace’s characters. “I’m committed to putting as many books as I can out into the world that treat platonic relationships with all the weight and gravity and significance usually reserved for romance,” Kornher-Stace explained on Goodreads. She’s not just committed to these relationships; she’s really, really good at them. Mal and Jessa play off each other’s strengths, find ways to keep each other going, and from the get-go their friendship feels lived-in and fleshed-out, familiar and true. The relationships with their roommates are less detailed, but we get a glimpse of each of them, an outline of personality and perspective that’s enough to convince me that Kornher-Stace could write another novel about each one.
But Mal’s interest in, and eventual connection with, 22 is something rarely seen: the friend-crush. The NPCs are celebrities, with merch of their faces, figurines, posters, you name it. They’re everywhere; they seem less people and more action figures. Mal’s attraction to 22 doesn’t involve the usual trappings, but is something deeper and harder to parse—and something that rings true and familiar. Haven’t many of us had that person we just want to be near, to get to know, but not in the way everyone else thinks? Or been attracted to a person in a way that you feel like ought to be romantic, but isn’t? That’s what Kornher-Stace puts on the page: a connection that rarely gets depicted, let alone as effectively as this.
Firebreak has been compared to Ready Player One, and if you have any kind of reaction to that, I understand. So did I. Both books involve an immersive, addictive video game that takes the place of a lot of “real life” for people in a broken future. But you will find no ‘80s references, no quests, no glib nostalgia here. The game feeds the plot, and it plays an important role in Mal and Jessa’s lives. But change needs to come to the real world, the world full of hungry, thirsty bodies at the mercy of corporate greed. What happens in the game matters, but on an entirely different level.
It’s difficult to talk about Firebreak without talking about how it connects to Archivist Wasp, though as I said before: This is a standalone novel, and you absolutely don’t have to have read Kornher-Stace’s other books to get completely sucked into it. That said, there’s a real reward here for those who have met Wasp and her world. The books work in tandem to tell a story about how systems of oppression and abuse replicate themselves, how the horrors faced by one generation may be the same thing later generations face, in different shapes and with different names. All three novels prioritize vivid, platonic relationships, often between characters in exceedingly fraught situations—people fighting against forces that don’t really see them as people, and trying to retain their humanity in the face of incredible brutality.
Kornher-Stace sends her characters to underworlds, erases their realities, isn’t afraid to make death stark on the page, and knows how to show us horrible abuses without ever edging into gratuitousness or melodrama. Her heroine’s only superpowers are curiosity, stubbornness, and care—things we’re all capable of mustering up. This world feels real; this world is real, and not that far away. Firebreak reads like a warning, but one that’s simultaneously a gripping, affecting tale full of characters I hope we’ll get to meet again.
Firebreak is available from Saga Press.