In the year 2048, our planet is in the midst of the Second Cold War. For the last 26 years, the United States has been alone, living under trade sanctions imposed by Ri Xiong Di’s New Eastern Bloc. The country has become self-sufficient, but only barely—the majority of Americans live in poverty. Not so the cadets of the junior military academies established by the Youth Services Charter. They are well-fed and in peak physical form, they are educated and armed, and they are the country’s only real hope for a future.
At the top of the heap is Chase Harcourt—known to most by her call sign, Nyx—a girl who, due to her skill in the sky, is afforded a great deal of behavioral leeway by her superiors. She flies one of the only two Streakers, the experimental jets that just might be capable of finally taking down the drone fleets that have held the world hostage for decades.
While they certainly have some parallels, Cori McCarthy’s Breaking Sky is an entirely different animal from her debut, The Color of Rain. They both fall under the science-fiction umbrella, but while The Color of Rain is a space opera about a destitute, desperate girl coerced into prostitution; Breaking Sky is about a girl at the top of her game, a girl who is in a position to act out again and again without much concern about the consequences. Both stories star wounded, grieving heroines, but while Rain is a breath-of-fresh-air original—a girl who faces situations not often seen in YA, and who responds to them in ways that feel both surprising AND believable—Chase is a paint-by-numbers Military Maverick archetype. She’s a character that readers will root for and care about, yes, but at her core, she’s a trope.
The same can be said of the story as a whole: Breaking Sky is a much more straightforward, familiar book than The Color of Rain. While it references plenty of other stories—The Lord of the Rings series, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Ender’s Game—there’s really only one at its heart: Top Gun. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll already know the arc—hotheaded pilot with daddy issues is close to no one but her navigator; spars with more cautious pilot; tragedy almost grounds her but her former rival helps her regain her confidence and save the day (double points to McCarthy for working in the teeth snap)—and as it’s mentioned in the Acknowledgements, I assume that was an entirely deliberate choice. I’m rather flabbergasted that it hasn’t been promoted as, “THIS GENERATION’S TOP GUN.”
The one element that makes Breaking Sky stand out as more than just a semi-forgettable retelling of Top Gun—side note: does the fact that there’s now a retelling mean that Top Gun is viewed as a modern-day fairy tale?—is the gender swap. It made me realize two things: 1) that we very rarely see female characters take on a true Maverick role (Starbuck in the BSG reboot is one of the few), and 2) that when female characters DO take on that role, we often criticize them for exhibiting the very self-absorbed, dangerous, costly behavior that we expect from male Mavericks, the very behavior that, in male Mavericks, is so often lauded as “independent.”
I’m a proud feminist, and I had an extremely uncomfortable moment when I realized I was holding Chase to a higher moral standard than I ever had James Bond, John McClane, or Martin Riggs. Breaking Sky may not break any new ground literarily, but it made me consider my own hidden assumptions and deep-seated sexism. Which, ultimately, made for a far more memorable reading experience than any number of fancy literary flourishes could have.
If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or running the show at her local library, Leila Roy might be making stuff for her Etsy shop while rewatching Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5, Black Books or Twin Peaks. Well, that or she’s hanging out on Twitter. Or both.