A review of Insignia (Insignia #1) by S.J. Kincaid
Katherine Tegan Books (Harper Collins), 2012
by REBECCA, May 29, 2013
Fourteen-year-old Tom Raines trails after his itinerant gambler father, hustling virtual reality game rooms to pay for their hotels. He wants to be important, to be respected, but even his school teacher thinks he’s going nowhere fast. That all changes, though, when a military higher-up recruits Tom to an elite military academy to train him as a strategist for the war (World War III). But in a world run by corporations and microcomputers, how will Tom know what he’s really fighting for?
Insignia is sort of an Ender’s Game meets Harry Potter meets The Secret Circle. Tom is plucked from obscurity to translate his video game skills into real military tactics in a new place where he finally makes friends. Don’t get me wrong: even though it’s a recognizable story, Insignia is really a lot of fun. It has just enough science (the classic neuro-chip) to feel science fiction-y, just enough worldbuilding to feel satisfying (although done in truly catastrophic infodumps that I don’t know how it got past an editor), and just enough boarding school hijinks to feel like you’re fourteen again. All in all, a really fun read.
When Tom arrives at the Pentagonal Spire, he learns that in order to train to be an elite member of the Intrasolar Forces and fight in the war, he has to undergo a small alteration: a microchip will be inserted into his brain to give him perfect recall to all uploaded information (yes, there is an “I know kung fu” joke). Of course, this trips Tom’s my-dad-thinks-these-people-are-robots meter, and why shouldn’t it?; the “paranoid” gamblers are always right. Still, his desire to be extraordinary outweighs his suspicion of becoming controllable by the military, and he agrees. And this is the scary shit: people, I have read books before where people get computer chips in their freaking brains, but for some reason this one just terrified me! Since these are students, they all try and hack into each other’s brains, and of course, evil people try and manipulate their brain chips and it is like my worst nightmare. Hello Imperius curse!
what were this book’s intentions? did it live up to them?
S.J. Kincaid has created a world that is sort of the logical extension of current political critiques: countries have formed alliances and their governments are run by corporations; World War III is being fought for purely capitalist gains and it’s being done in outer space with drones to avoid any human or environmental (on Earth) casualties—and, of course, to dismiss any possible resistance to the war. There is very little discussion of this world or its implications among the characters (except by Tom’s dad, who is a bit of a mouthpiece. You know, for sense). It’s their reality, and there seems to be no underground movement against this military-corporate complex; at least, not that these kids know about.
It’s so interesting: Insignia is one of the most political YA books I’ve read in a while—Tom’s father rails against corporate-run warfare, lambastes the military for taking advantage of its naïve recruits’ desire to play with toys and then disposing of them, and skewers the world’s obsession with looks, which is what dictates who is the face of the military. Yeah!!! Right? But, strangely, its politics have absolutely no stakes in the book. While Tom agrees with his father, for the most part, and is often guided by similar principles, there is no meat to these politics.
For me, this is a little unfortunate, since I think all the pieces are there to critique Insignia‘s world. It’s almost as if these politics (and I’m not saying they are the author’s politics, necessarily) lost out to the fourteen and fifteen year olds’ other desires: for friends, for revenge, and for cool gizmos. And if that’s the case, then I’m okay with it in this first book in the series. The critiques are intrinsic to the world itself, and I can only hope that, in later books (and as the characters mature) the politics and the action will merge.
There are clear heroes and villains, here, which makes Insignia more romp than real science fiction; but neither is it totally lightweight. I was irritated by the knee-jerk gender essentialism (people, come on!) and the fact that the second Tom got a golden ticket he suddenly became handsome for no reason whatsoever (which has other implications near the end of the book). These are all signs, though, more of a sloppy book than of a bad one, I think. And, all that said, the book’s intention was clearly to be fun, entertaining, and action-packed, and it absolutely succeeded at all three. The characters are well-developed and the pace is good, merging all the best parts of boarding school novels with a lighter version of Ender’s Game. I am definitely excited to see where Kincaid goes in the sequel.
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (1985). Ender Wiggin is recruited by the military to attend Battle School as a child. Once there, he is immersed in the wonderful world of the battle room, and the terrible world of war. Hate Orson Scott Card’s douchebag politics with my whole heart, but love Ender’s Game so much.
Hero by Perry Moore (2007). In a world where superheroes are real, Thom Creed is asked to join the League, full of others with powers, just like he has. But which will be harder: telling his dad that he’s joining the very group who spurned his dad, or telling his dad he’s gay? Great, great superhero book, that is also a book about finding friends and finding yourself.
procured from: the library