Book cover: Firebreak - Nicole Kornher-StaceMal dreams of living off streaming BestLife, the massive multiplayer version of reality. After snagging the first footage of an elusive SecOps NPC in weeks, a sponsor offers to pay her to do just that. The price is a quest that will put Mal face to face with real SecOps – and toe to toe with Stellaxis, the corporation that controls every aspect of her life…

Firebreak is a fast-paced dystopian thriller exploring the dangers of corporate control: America has been sold off to corporations, who have merged and merged until the states are split between two surviving behemoths. Mal lives on the edges of the last contested city, orphaned by the endless war. As a Stellaxis citizen, she’s been taken care of – first in the camps, then assigned to a shared dorm – and given free brain implants and interfaced lenses; but she’ll face a domestic terrorism charge if she ever ‘interferes’ with the water supply – say by collecting or purifying rainwater to make it potable.

The implants and lenses give her direct access to (carefully controlled) information and to BestLife, an immersive gaming experience that lets every citizen take their turn blowing up the enemy. Top gamers are celebrities in their own right, living off tips and sponsorships of their gaming feeds, but the true celebrities are the Stellaxis SecOps – super soldiers known only by their IDs who put a human face on the war (although everyone knows they’re not actually human, they were bioengineered in a Stellaxis lab). In BestLife, their digital NPCs are all still alive and Mal dreams of topping the leagues and getting to hang out 22.

There’s a great deal of savvy commentary packed into Mal’s life: the overcrowded dorms, ubiquitous surveillance, water extortion, corporate franchises, media control, working half a dozen badly-paid jobs to afford cheap noodles and rent – then streaming until the nightly power curfew in the hope of picking up tips. It’s good stuff, but what really made Firebreak sing for me was Mal herself: ace, introverted and socially awkward, relying on her friend Jenna to be the bubbly public face of their joint stream, because there’s no way Mal is unmuting the comments to engage with fans. Perhaps that’s why she’s drawn to remote, ruthless 22. They could just share space. Quietly.

It goes without saying this is romance-free; Mal may have an enormous crush on 22, but it’s entirely platonic in spite of Jenna’s teasing. Jenna herself is as adorable as a Labrador – curious, sociable, endlessly perky – selling the stream while Mal grinds out the play. When Mal gets trapped in a real world drama without Jenna, the gap is palpable; but it gives Mal a chance to show her true colours, reaching out to help strangers even when it puts herself at risk.

I loved that for all its tech and weaponry, action and conspiracy, Firebreak is as interested in friendship and community as it is in Mal’s journey from being a minor gamer to finding the courage and motivation to challenge a corrupt system. I appreciated that Mal remains a single, powerless, often overwhelmed person who can achieve very little alone against insurmountable odds – so a great deal hinges on how Jenna and her dorm-mates respond to her predicament. Similarly, even the SecOps – more human than they seem – must choose between loyalty to one another vs loyalty to Stellaxis.

Nicole Kornher-Stace has written a compelling tale that rattles along at a fine pace with characters I quickly grew invested in, in circumstances that had me screaming (both for and at them). While I think Firebreak stands alone, the ending is ambiguous enough to leave room for a sequel – if one appears, I’ll be snapping it up. Fair to say I’m giving Firebreak serious consideration as one of my two nominations in the SF category of this year’s Subjective Chaos Kind of Awards; it was a diverting and engaging read with themes of personal responsibility and community activism that I appreciated.

It has also reminded me that I never did get round to reading the highly-recommended Archivist Wasp, so I should fix that.