A big part of the appeal of story about giant fighting mechas is the machines themselves. Their look, their character — it's fun to compare them and root for them when they go into battle. But “Gearbreakers” really doesn't care about the mecha fantasy. Its machines are cold symbols of authoritarianism, and its protagonists seek to destroy them at any cost.
Sona is the Pilot of a Windup — a giant humanoid machine built to destroy and oppress. In order to control it, she has become part machine herself. Her body connects directly to the Windup, so that she can see through its eyes and even feel its pain, all while doing the divine bidding of Godolia, an ever-growing empire. And she's good at it: So good that she's just become the youngest Pilot to ever be made a Valkyrie, the most elite Windup.
But there's just one problem. Sona despises Godolia. All she has ever wanted is the chance to destroy it — and now, they've given her power. She just needs to find the right moment to use it, and that moment arrives in the form of a captive Gearbreaker named Eris.
Gearbreakers are rag-tag teams of rebel soldiers who have figured out how to take down Windups. Young and a little too in love with danger, they rush in, swarm the Windup, and destroy it from the inside out by killing the vulnerable pilot. Eris and her team of wild kids are the best Gearbreakers of them all. But then a takedown goes south, and Eris is dragged off to a Godolian torture chamber where they will corrupt her mind and send her back to be a witless traitor.
Except Sona has a different use for her. Together, they can escape and find a way to bring Godolia to its knees, once and for all ... if only she can convince the Gearbreaker that it might be worth her while to trust a Pilot.
This book is getting a lot of comparisons to “Pacific Rim,” which is easy to understand. Like “Pacific Rim,” “Gearbreakers” brings a sense of the poetic to the action-driven proceedings. In the case of “Pacific Rim,” the poetry was in the visuals, while in “Gearbreakers,” it manifests in the musicality of the language. Debut author Zoe Hana Mikuta has a way with words, and it will be exciting to see how her voice develops over time.
“Gearbreakers” also has a lot to offer for readers who enjoy sapphic pining. The relationship that grows between Sona and Eris examines how trust can be built despite trauma, and it will definitely leave the reader longing for a quick turnaround on the upcoming sequel. Also sweet is the found-family dynamic between the Gearbreaker kids, which creates a sense of community in a largely violent and fractured world.
But there's a reason why it's easier to think of visual media that feature giant fighting robots than novels — movies, manga, cartoons, graphic novels, these formats can focus on art design and action, showcasing the cool looks of different machines and how they smash together. In a novel, these elements are by nature more subdued, requiring the imagination of the reader rather than designers and animators and stunt choreographers. In the case of “Gearbreakers,” I'm not entirely sure that the narrative description was able to compensate for the lack of visuals. During fights, like the Pilot inside the machine, I felt bounced around and unable to picture exactly how the fight was going. Maybe this was by design, to make me relate to the characters inside the Windup instead of being a spectator, but it does undercut the impact of having giant robots fight in the first place.
While the first act of the plot is quite strong as we meet Sona and Eris and root for their escape, things become a little less focused from that point on. I think the ultimate issue is that we have no specific antagonist in a story that is largely external-conflict driven. Our heroes are fighting a faceless empire, and that makes it harder to invest in the stakes. The boss fight is against machines that are piloted by people — but we no longer have a sense of who those specific people are. And at the end, when we meet a character who is presumably being set up to be the antagonist for the sequel, it's someone we've never met before instead of a character we've spent time with.
“Gearbreakers” has its funny and quippy moments, but it is largely a somber tale of violence and rebellion, tinged with a deep sense of longing for a life where love and family are possible. Readers looking for a different sort of mecha tale than the usual fare will find a lot to invest in.
Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books and Quill & Quire.
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