Insignia by S. J. Kincaid

S. J. Kincaid gets my hearty thanks for breaking me out of my reading funk with Insignia, her debut novel. I had heard great things about it for weeks and finally decided to give it a chance to hook me – and I am so glad I did.
Tom Raines has lucked out. Thanks to his virtual reality gaming skills, he’s been recruited to work at the Pentagonal Spire, where he trains to eventually become a combatant in World War III. If he shows he’s up to snuff and gains the sponsorship of one of the twelve multinational corporations, he’ll be fighting for the Indo-Americans in outer space, remotely controlling a spaceship with the help of a computer chip implanted in his brain. 
That premise has the word “cool” written all over it.
The war – which is being fought to secure rights for the corporations to the resources in space – has won overall popular support since no one actually dies. No one even gets hurt – it’s all done remotely, and the only things that are blown up are machines. Things aren’t rosy on earth (huge rates of unemployment and poverty), but people don’t seem to be too fussed about forking over tax dollars so that the sponsoring corporations can make more money.
Tom knew that choosing this way of life wouldn’t be a cakewalk, but he wasn’t quite prepared for just how tough it would be or how many secrets he’d have to keep. All that is offset by the fact that he finally has a chance to make friends and a life for himself after being dragged around the country by his drunk gambler of a father.
I love how huge this story managed to be, incorporating a world war and large-scale political intrigue, not to mention the entire freakin’ solar system. But I also loved how Kincaid concentrated on her characters, Tom in particular – he’s so utterly teen that it hurts to read about sometimes.
The world Kincaid has created is fascinating. At first I was a little hesitant to believe in a culture that wages war using machines in outer space, with no real lives at stake, but she wrote it so convincingly that I believed it. It was not difficult for me to believe in a world controlled by twelve mega-corporations who have essentially bought out the world governments. I loved reading about the computers implanted in the teens’ brains and how it’s possible to actually give them computer viruses, making them baa like sheep – or other, much less innocuous actions. 
I did find myself drawing some comparisons between Insignia and other books I’ve read. I got a little bit of a Harry-Ron-Hermione vibe from Tom-Vik-Wyatt (Tom’s two best friends) for most of the story, and the competitions between the divisions within the Spire reminded me a lot of Rowling’s house competitions as well as Veronica Roth’s faction competitions during training. Additionally, the various training simulations Tom and his classmates undergo brought to mind the war games in Robison Wells’ Variant. And then there’s Blackburn, a teacher at the Spire who I pictured as an amalgam of Snape and Moody.
Still, the main premise of Kincaid’s story is pretty unique, and she tells it wonderfully. Unlike many action/adventure stories, I couldn’t tell where this one was going most of the time. Usually when I read a jacket flap, I have a pretty good idea, but this one threw me for several loops. And everything that happens is believable in Kincaid’s world, which is detailed and always interesting.
I can see Insignia getting some Cybils love. It’s got huge teen appeal, is quite well-written, and addresses some meaty issues (corporate control of government, why we fight wars, the nebulous division between human and machine). It’s a natural readalike for Divergent – the cover blurb from Roth is appropriate – not only because it’s high action, but also because of the emphasis on competition and the protagonist’s struggle to determine if the place in the world that he’s chosen for himself is the right one. Highly recommended.
Book borrowed from my local library.
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