Queer YA Spotlight: Gearbreakers

It makes sense that, when the times were desperate enough, when the people were frenzied enough, at a certain point we went past praying to deities and started to build them instead.

Premise: Godolia maintains its military might with the Windups: giant mechs piloted by cybernetically-enhanced soldiers, capable of wiping out entire towns should they not comply. But godlike robots are still made of nuts and bolts, and their greatest threat remains the rebel Gearbreakers who can climb inside and take them apart. Eris is a Gearbreaker, and thinks she’s met her mortal enemy when she comes face to face with Windup pilot Sona. But Sona is a war orphan like Eris, and has infiltrated the pilot program to try and dismantle Godolia from within.

Rainbow rep: a central f/f romance, queer side characters

Content considerations: non-detailed torture scenes; parental death; child soldiers; copious injuries described in fairly gnarly detail; the horrors of war in general

Gearbreakers kicks ass. That is really the only adequate way I can convey the impression that Zoe Hana Mikuta’s debut novel left on me. I’m talking gorgeous, evocative writing. I’m talking complex, vicious, and lovable protagonists. I’m talking metal-wrenching ass-kicking heart-stopping fight scenes. I’m talking girls falling in love. I’m talking giant robots. Giant robots. I was initially sceptical that mecha, as visual a genre as it is, would translate into prose, but not only did it translate, but the high-octane action was relatively easy to follow, and conveyed a fantastic sense of scale, terror, and unrestrained Cool Factor.

Gearbreakers kicks ass.

Yet amidst all that chaos I just praised, there are also crucial moments of stillness: quiet dips into very ordinary human relationships, or at least, the characters’ attempts at ordinary human relationships among the inhumane world in which they live. Humanity, in fact, is a recurring theme. Sona is a freshly-minted cyborg, surgically modified for compatibility with the Windups: the machines that are likened so often to gods, and the machines that wiped her childhood home off the map for some perceived slight. Windups are a symbol of a government setting aside respect for human life in favour of power. So are pilots still human, if they fuse so seamlessly with these machines, and if the violence they deliver echoes the movements of human hands? Is Sona still human, if she’s full of wires and doesn’t need to breathe?

To exact her revenge, she deliberately consented to being turned into a literal tool of the government. It creates an intriguing internal conflict, because she’s disgusted with herself, but she also kind of loves the physical might and agency she’s got—and that disgusts her all over again. Autonomy and power is a big theme throughout Sona’s arc in particular. She’s fighting tooth and nail to retain her personhood, her ownership of herself, after her body has literally been turned into and treated as inanimate property.

Eris, too, is wrestling with her humanity, though in different ways. The child of rebels, she’s been living under the radar and under constant threat her whole life. She’s become ruthless and hardened by necessity, stamping down on inconvenient emotions and pushing away even those closest to her. Even when she’s handed a team of rowdy kids, she keeps them at arm’s length… or, she tries to. You can’t get all mushy about people who might die any day, and you can’t keep a cool head in a battle with a giant robot if you’re stuffed full of clammy feelings. But, like with Sona, humanity peeks through despite the best efforts of the war-torn world.

For all its high-energy sci-fi kick-assery, Gearbreakers is able to ground itself in this sense of anger and melancholy that feels extremely real and adds crucial emotional weight to the setting. The most heart-wrenching scene comes right before the climax, where the two protagonists take a brief moment to escape before the impending battle. They talk about how old they feel, ancient and exhausted. Sona muses “We are supposed to be children” and Eris bitterly laughs.

YA spec-fic sometimes faces criticism for giving its teen characters personalities and skillsets that would better suit adults, but here the “maturity” of these characters is framed to make perfect, heartbreaking sense. They’ve been thrust into terrible violence since they were young, and the fact that they’ve survived until seventeen or so is a testament to them “growing up quickly” and doing things no child should have to do. Again, Mikuta manages to balance the existential horror and sadness of this against the action scenes that are so impossibly cool. War is Hell, no matter how sick it looks when a kid uses cyberpunk tech to down a giant robot.

This emotional throughline is the strongest element of the book, for me, highlighted wonderfully by the strong narrative voice. Perspective shifts between Sona and Eris, and they both narrate in really different, distinct ways: Sona is much more formal, almost poetic, whereas Eris’s POV is much more conversational and flippant. It’s maybe the best example of alternating POV I’ve read in a while, because the prose itself does so much excellent work to make these girls feel like fleshed-out, distinct characters who see the world in differing ways.

The writing does such a good job at drawing you into this madcap world, getting you attached to the heroes, getting invested in their relationship, before… oh, bastard, this is book one in a duology and it ends on a cliffhanger and doesn’t come out until 2022 goddammit!!

Don’t let that put you off (and don’t wait! Buying part one helps ensure that part two will get a big print run, and helps make it more likely that the author will get yet more book deals down the track!). Gearbreakers works as a story in its own right, and being split into sequels means you get a breather after all that intense content. It’s gnarly at times, with its brutality and torture scenes and tragic, traumatic backstories. But, as I hope I’ve highlighted in this review, its greatest strength is that is installs a human heart in the midst of all this crunching metal.

It uses the sci-fi trappings to tell a story about agency and power and humanity, and about love and compassion in the face of a world that wants to stomp you to death with a giant robot foot. Who says dystopia is dead? These, I’d argue, are the kinds of stories we need more than ever.

I read Gearbreakers for YA Pride’s monthly book club! Follow along if you like and join us next time.

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5 Comments

Filed under Alex Reads

5 responses to “Queer YA Spotlight: Gearbreakers

  1. mythos

    You’ve completely convinced me. I bought that book before I even finished reading this.

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