More than anything, Tom Raines wants to be important, though his shadowy life is anything but that. For years, Tom’s drifted from casino to casino with his unlucky gambler of a dad, gaming for their survival. Keeping a roof over their heads depends on a careful combination of skill, luck, con artistry, and staying invisible.
Then one day, Tom stops being invisible. Someone’s been watching his virtual-reality prowess, and he’s offered the incredible—a place at the Pentagonal Spire, an elite military academy. There, Tom’s instincts for combat will be put to the test, and if he passes, he’ll become a member of the Intrasolar Forces, helping to lead his country to victory in World War Three. Finally, he’ll be someone important: a superhuman war machine with the tech skills that every virtual-reality warrior dreams of. Life at the Spire holds everything that Tom’s always wanted—friends, the possibility of a girlfriend, and a life where his every action matters—but what will it cost him?
Gripping and provocative, S. J. Kincaid’s futuristic thrill ride of a debut crackles with memorable characters, tremendous wit, and a vision of the future that asks startling, timely questions about the melding of humanity and technology.
You can read an excerpt here.
This book is pure fun, Robert Heinlein style. And while S.J. Kincaid may be taking us on a ride through familiar territory, it’s a landscape I frankly was delighted to see again.
Confession – I love sci-fi adventure, but sadly it’s a genre that’s been hard to find in YA of late (more and more anime feels like the last bastion). And what little sci-fi I have been able to find all too often turns out to be “science fiction,” i.e. a romance in vaguely science fictional packaging (much like you often find with “dystopian” YA). So you can imagine my delight when I discovered in Insignia what felt almost like a throwback of a novel, a story of sheer sci-fi adventure, brimming with space battles, cadet intrigue, and galactic consequences.
Now yes, some very familiar tropes do make an appearance here – we have a space war fought by gamer kids, piloting their spaceships remotely, all in a world where corporations reign supreme, not to mention Tom’s gang at the academy consists of a loyal, funny best friend and girl genius sidekick (Harry Potter much?) – but Kincaid succeeds in mashing these tropes into a fun blend. Yes, this story is exactly what you might expect – Tom goes to military school, trains in how to fight, discovers a unique talent, and eventually plays a crucial role in a climactic battle – but Kincaid still manages to seed some very interesting ideas throughout her breakneck narrative. Frankly I wish she had slowed down a bit, and taken a little more time to develop those ideas, but as I said, this is a story that definitely belongs to the old school of sci-fi adventure, and as such it never tries to be particularly deep. Kincaid herself describes her book as being in the vein of Starship Troopers, and frankly I think that’s a far, far more accurate comparison than Ender’s Game, both in terms of style and intent – this book is exactly as it was meant to be: a fast, fun, action packed romp.
Now my absolute favorite part of this book is something I can’t get into, because I refuse to spoil it – but I will say this: Kincaid definitely plays on the larger ramifications of having a computer implanted in your brain, and she doesn’t shy away from putting Tom through the ringer – which I absolutely loved. This section – and you’ll know it when read it – really is the perfect example of what Kincaid does best, as she nimbly dances around interesting ideas all the while never losing an action beat. This book is a pure non-stop adventure, and it’s very, very hard to put down.
Still, I do have to say that Tom’s “special ability” did stretch my credulity a bit, because frankly it was far too easy. It offered up solution after solution far too readily to be entirely believable, and it just felt way too convenient, again and again and again. Yet for all of that, I did still really like where it took the story, particular in terms of Tom learning about the enemy, so I did end up swallowing it whole.
I can’t say it enough – this story is just FUN. From the holo-deck style training simulations, where the cadets fight in the famous battles of history, to the cool Star Wars-y space battles, not to mention the cutthroat rivalry between the different Cadet branches, this story just gleefully builds castles in its sci-fi sandbox. And I’ll also say again – yes, there is a lot here that is familiar, but to me it felt like the return of an old friend, someone I’d sorely missed. I mean, really – when’s the last time you read a page-turner with space battles, virtual reality wars, and corporate intrigue?
All in all, this fun, feisty read is exactly what I’ve been missing, and I will definitely be back for book #2.
Byrt Grade: B+/A-
As Levar Burton used to say – you don’t have to take my word for it…
In addition to obvious echoes of Ender’s Game and Harry Potter, debut novelist Kincaid weaves in hefty helpings of Cory Doctorow…With action, real humor and a likable, complex protagonist, this fast-moving, satisfying adventure also provides some food for thought.
Kincaid’s debut novel, an ambitious, high-concept mélange of the teen hacker and teen spy genres (with some gaming elements included, too), occasionally struggles under its own weight, but still provides a fast-paced and exciting tale.