Mechanized Love: A Review of Gearbreakers, by Zoe Hana Mikuta

            Genre can be a tricky thing in writing.  Some authors are very strict about sticking within certain genres, and abiding by the various common plots or tropes that come along with those genres.  For example, ask three different people about what the cyberpunk genre is and you will receive three different answers.  Science-fiction and fantasy are often seen as distinct genres, and many do not think the romance genre could cross over with a noir story.  However, genres are not set in stone.  There is no comprehensive set of rules stating what you can or cannot do as a writer, even the most traditional authors subconsciously mix and match genres all the time.  The terminology is meant less as a set of rules and more as a set of guidelines.  There are common tropes associated with science-fiction, certainly, but there is absolutely nothing stopping an author from combining those with romance.  Many times, the best stories are the ones where authors pick and choose the parts of a genre they like the most, combining them with aspect of other genres until an engaging fusion emerges.

            Gearbreakers, by Zoe Hana Mikuta, is one such genre blend.  On the surface, and based on the premise, you would be forgiven for thinking it the book was just a Pacific Rim-esque story of giant robots and a resistance against an evil empire.  While those elements are still present, the action and politicking are not the most important things about this book.  Rather, those aspects of the science-fiction genre help create the setting, while romance takes care of the plot.  Gearbreakers is Mikuta’s debut novel, and yet she sidesteps the pitfalls that many first-time authors fall into with their first books.  Certainly, one part of it is the technical aspect of Mikuta’s writing.  She excels at bringing raw emotion forward on the page, and it is very easy to empathize with the characters as their experiences deepen.  All the more impressive is the fact that, at the time of writing, Mikuta is still a college student, likely finding the time to craft this story while also balancing her classwork and college life.  Writing and publishing a novel is a worthy achievement at any time, but something about being this good an author while still a student elevates the accomplishment.  This is the kind of book which manages to suck in readers immediately, and leaves you wanting to skip to the end to make sure the characters will be ok.

            Gearbreakers appears to take place sometime in the future of Earth, or in another world that is very close to Earth-like.  At some point prior to the start of the novel, war broke out between the great nations of the world as they competed for resources and power.  Powerful egos ruled the day as they constructed giant robots, known as Windups, to fight their battles.  Religious cults seized control of the societies of the world, claiming the robots as idols to their gods.  The empire of Godolia eventually won the world war by creating the first manned robots, while the rest were either piloted remotely or via artificial intelligence.  By the start of the book, Godolia has apparently destroyed all other nations and is the sole governing body of the world.  At least the part of the world where the book is set.  Around their central city lays the Badlands, occupied by cities and towns dedicated to providing resources to Godolia, while Godolia remains the only power of Earth with Windups, ensuring their continued rule.  The Windups are piloted by extremely talented cyborg pilots, whose pain and extreme emotions have been stripped form them by Godolia.  In short, Godolia exhibits many dystopian evil empires in fiction, down to the scrappy resistance who continually seizes victory after victory against them, despite not possessing a single Windup.

            Gearbreakers is told from the alternating point-of-views of Bellsona “Sona” Steelcrest and Eris Shindanai.  For the first quarter or so of the novel, these two POV’s operate as parallel narratives.  The characters do not start together but, once they meet, they are inseparable.  We meet Sona first, and she forms much of the emotional backbone of the novel.  Sona is a pilot for Godolia, albeit one who lacks any of the fervor or loyalty to the country.  Rather, Sona progressed through the military in the hopes of becoming a pilot in order to destroy the empire from within.  At multiple points during her first few chapters, she inwardly exalts at having finally obtained the power of a Windup.  Meanwhile, Eris is part of the resistance, known as the Gearbreakers, and is both an engineer and a daredevil.  Eris and her companions excel at attacking Windups, breaking into the robots and dismantling them from the inside.  They seem to thrive on the danger and go into every battle assuming death is inevitable, but that they do not have permission to die yet.  On the surface, these two heroines could not seem more different.  Sona is reserved and polite while Eris is outspoken and vulgar, for example.  However, as the book progresses and the two get to know each other, both readers and the main characters learn that they share so much in common.

            While the novel opens with the promise of action and fighting against this evil empire that controls powerful giant robots, that is not actually the focus of the novel.  While all that is still present, Mikuta is mostly concerned with our two main characters and their burgeoning romance, complicated by the fact that, when we first meet her, Eris is already in a relationship with a male character.  However, as we are able to see into Eris’ head, it never appears that she truly loves her partner.  Rather, she has sought companionship and care in the face of an extreme world.  When she finally meets Sona, there is an immediate attraction between the girls, especially on the part of Sona.  It is her encounter with Eris that finally convinces her to defect from Godolia and help the resistance, no matter the cost to herself.  As the two get to know and trust each other, there is a palpable tenderness that easily crosses from the page into the reader.  You root for their relationship, in the face of the many hardships Mikuta throws at Sona and Eris, and we feel their sadness whenever cold reality threatens to break everything apart.  For lack of a better descriptor, the care between Sona and Eris feels real in a way that not many authors are able to convey.  Mikuta has created the kind of romance which is sure to make readers care about the well-being of fictional characters.

            However, romance and action are not the only focuses of this novel.  A considerable amount of time is spent examining and processing Sona’s trauma at the hands of Godolia, from her upbringing to her current fate as a cyborg pilot.  When we first meet her, fresh out of the multiple surgeries that served to remove aspects of her humanity and replace them with machinery, she almost cannot handle what has been done to her.  Even though she knew what she was getting into, the book always makes it clear that Godolia has committed a great violence against her.  When seen from Eris and other’s perspective, Sona appears to be a stoic, robotic warrior.  Careful and measured in all ways.  But, from her own perspective, Sona is a mess.  Despite being unable to feel pain as a result of the surgeries, her emotions are all over the place as the book progresses, and she possesses an almost endless well of sadness.  In this sense, Eris exists as a light at the end of the tunnel.  Even though Sona understands she could die at any moment, she is willing to do whatever she needs to do to keep Eris safe and happy.  That being said, the scenes where Sona’s emotions are allowed to break the mask, especially as we get into the later parts of the novel, are genuinely heartbreaking, and we want nothing more than for Eris to comfort her.

            Gearbreakers is a novel that entices readers in with the promise of action and resistance against an evil empire with giant mecha, and keeps readers turning page after page with an engaging romance that is both sad and tender in equal measure.  At a certain point in the novel, after reading a few scenes of absolutely thrilling attacks for Gearbreakers against Windups, readers start to realize that every action scene serves a primary purpose.  The actual effect against Godolia is minimal, but the effect on the characters and the reader is immense.  Every page, every word, is dedicated to building out Eris and Sona’s characters and, once they meet, to filling out their relationship.  Gearbreakers is a very quick read, and readers are sure to find themselves surprised by how quickly the ending arrives, and even more surprised when one last page is turned and the book is over.  Mikuta will leave you desperate for more and, thankfully, her sequel to Gearbreakers, titled Godslayers, will be out next summer, so there is plenty of time to catch up.  Gearbreakers has a little something for everyone, and anyone who opens this book is sure to become addicted as the lives of Eris and Sona unfold on each page.

Gearbreakers can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold

Total Read Time: 8 days

Next on the List: Blood Like Magic, by Liselle Sambury

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