Release Date: July 10, 2012
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books (HarperCollins)
Age Group: Young Adult
Source: ARC received from publisher
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?
Tell Me More: When you’ve got a brother who is all about video games, a certain reluctance for stories about gamers is normal. Nevertheless, when I first heard about Insignia last year on the author’s blog, I filed it away under “interesting concepts” and thought I’d just borrow it from the library. Eight months later, I’m glad I took a chance on this book because it shifted every idea I had about virtual reality science fiction on its head, and it was an intense, amazing ride to boot.
Make no mistake–S.J. Kincaid plays no games with her readers in this high-stakes story of a boy who finds himself struggling for an identity amidst people who want to force identities onto him. The tone of the first chapter is simultaneously witty and rebellious, with Tom using overlooked skills to get one up on arrogant VR players. Kincaid writes Tom as older than his fourteen years, so it is jarring to remember that he still stays with his father and that he is still under the mercy of the authorities. It’s a frustrating life that he leads, so no reader could possibly blame him for wanting out. What the Pentagonal Spire offers is security, stability, and a chance at being somebody. Who could turn that down after a life of running away all the time?
In this light, I found it extremely interesting that Kincaid chose to make Tom a fourteen-year-old. He’s on the younger end of the YA spectrum, and his mind and attitudes are still malleable. That itself is the main reason why the government chooses to hire teenagers for their programs, but there is also a darker side to it. Where is the fine line between employment and utilization? In other words, can we remain human when the entire point of our lives is to serve? Kincaid takes the idea of dehumanization–something that still happens to this day–and dresses it in the robes of virtual reality and celebrity, in games and patriotism. Does that really make a difference? Tom’s position and subsequent promotions in the Spire depend on his turning a blind eye to the fact that to a large extent, every teenager is a tool, a weapon. They don’t create the programs that they use, even though they are taught programming in case they need to escape from it. A chilling scene in the programming class drives this point home–should someone insert malware into the much-touted neural processor, you would be even more helpless than a regular human. And Tom, as a young teenager, is positioned to receive years of training under this neural processor, to depend on it and make it a part of himself. That unpredictability kept me tied to the story and I genuinely could not stop reading this book.
There were several moments in this novel that reminded me of Veronica Roth’s Divergent. I’m not a huge fan of that series–the first book was okay, Insurgent was a more compelling read–and I have to say that when it comes to action and conspiracy theories, Insignia is a better book, hands-down. I felt like Tom’s actions were more in keeping with his character than Tris’s were, and the world around Tom was much more carefully laid out and detailed than the Chicago we see in Divergent. Admittedly, I’m a reader that goes for those tiny details, so my preference for this book won’t come as a surprise. We know so much about Tom’s futuristic world after only 50 pages, and Kincaid writes his story in such a way that you constantly thirst for more of everything.
Ultimately, that is what makes Insignia such a satisfying read: readers can draw very real connections to its universe, and see how history might just play out to be exactly like it. Even better, Tom is not a push-over, and he is determined to make sure that he knows as much as he can before making any risky decisions. That kind of self-preservation instinct is important, and it stops Insignia from becoming just another flash-in-the-pan thriller. As you make your way further into the story, it becomes clearer that Tom is a strong character, one that won’t find himself at the mercy of factors he can’t control. Granted, that strength also leads him into some unsavoury situations, but he’s a smart kid. He knows there’s much more to life than what he can see at any given moment.
The Final Say: S.J. Kincaid’s unique vision of a world tied to the brilliant minds of teenagers in Insignia will keep readers enthralled with electric prose and heart-stopping twists.
S.J. Kincaid was born in Alabama, grew up in California, and attended high school in New Hampshire, but it was while living beside a haunted graveyard in Scotland, that she realized that she wanted to be a writer.