Thursday, January 31, 2013

Insignia by S.J. Kincaid

          World War III, brain computers, AND Nazi Ninjas? All in this week's review!

            Before I get into my review of Insignia, I think it’s important for me to talk about my feelings towards it, before I did more than read the blurb.
            I’ll admit, I was a little apprehensive going in. This stemmed from the mention of World War III, a less than original idea, and the repeated references to gaming. First off, World War III.
            As a concept World War III is just fine. After all, it just means countries from around the world are fighting each other and that it has been coined as the third World War, a logical name. Thing is, it’s been done many times before, with few new ideas implemented. So, I was worried this would read the same as so many other books. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case.
            My second worry was based off the repeated mentions of gaming. Don’t get me wrong, I love videogames. They have given me some of the greatest experiences that any form of media ever has. Probably because of this, it always irritates me to see them used in a way that comes off boardroom-ey. “So, what have you come up with Mr. Mitchell?” Mr. Mitchell takes a deep breath and tries to see more of Mr. Money’s face than the white glint of his monocle. “Sir, how about a story where there is a boy and a girl and they try to find their missing dog?” Mr. Money waits a few seconds before answering, “And what markets does that tap? We need something that the teens will read! Mr. Mitchell, what are you kids into these days?” Mr. Mitchell shifts in his seat and replies, “Well, Sir, videogames are quite- “Mr. Money cuts Mr. Mitchell off, exclaiming, “Perfect! Put video games into it!”
            When the plot of a book is very video game centric, or football or ballet or D&D or anything of that sort, and is then accompanied with little else of merit, it feels manipulative, shallow, and possibly money grubbing. Every time I imagine the conversation above.
            So, it’s with great joy I can say that Insignia avoids both of these traps. Now, time to get to the review bit, what I imagine you are here for.
            The world is in the midst of World War III, a war fought not on Earth, but in space and for private rather than public interests. Companies sponsor Combatants, teenagers that are the equivalent of fighter pilots or drone operators, who control the spaceships from Earth.
            In this world, Tom Raines is nothing. A short, pimple-faced teen who cons people at games in all the little, run down casinos that his gambling-addicted dad makes his home.
            So, when the government sees Tom’s gaming prowess and asks him to go to the Pentagonal Spire, where he will be trained to become a combatant, he agrees with the hope of becoming important, something that he never has been.
            Tom is implanted with a neural processor, from here on referred to as Brain Computer, (which he knew nothing about till after he arrived) and quickly joins the other trainees.
            We are quickly introduced to a handful of quirky characters. From Wyatt, the brilliant but quiet girl who lacks any sort of social ability, to Yuri, the possible Russian spy who’s as nice as can be but with a Brain Computer that is intentionally bugged so he can’t remember any military secrets.
            The characters aren’t the most original or deep, to the exception of Tom and possibly Blackburn, one of the teachers. What they lack in depth, they make up for in laughs and the simple enjoyment they offer.
            Insignia’s plot revolves around Tom’s struggles and triumphs with his teachers, classmates, and those that want to use him because of his position as a trainee. I couldn’t identify any single struggle or end goal that Tom was working towards. Instead, several struggles were woven in, overlapping each other. Without a central goal, no king to kill or dog to find, it became a series of antagonists that each had their moments, but none took the role of super-terrible-evil-bad-guy-who-wants-to-ruin-your-life that Tom could defeat. Due to how the antagonists are introduced throughout the book, I can’t say anything more without spoiling it, but rest assured that the lack of a goal isn’t something that detracted from the book so much as it is something that would have improved the book for me personally.
            Insignia is a funny book. More than being funny though, Insignia does a very good job managing the humor. The balance of humor to seriousness is one of the things that most struck me about this book. In a lot of books, and shows, I feel like the change between humor to seriousness is so sudden that it detracts from both. In Insignia though, I didn’t feel this at all due to the fact that they each occupy different parts of the story. The seriousness resides in the over-arching themes, while the moment to moment scenes are where the humor exists. Even when there is a truly serious scene, it still maintains that slight sense of absurdity so it works.
            Just a heads up, to those of you who like your humor very sophisticated, this may not be the book for you. To put it simply, if you don’t like Nazi ninjas and you can’t stand a boob, or if you prefer, bosom (Is that what you sophisticated ladies and gentlemen say?), joke or two, then this is not what you are looking for. This is a story seen through the eyes of a teenage boy, expect a faithful representation.
            A problem this book may suffer from in the eyes of some is the relatively small setting. The entire book, to the exception of a few excursions into Washington D.C. and the fantastic simulations that Tom and the other trainees are put through, is limited to only a handful of rooms in the Pentagonal Spire. Personally, I didn’t find this to be a problem though. Even though it was the same room, same class, and the same characters, momentum was maintained because the circumstances have changed. The changing relationships between characters and, once again, the humor, kept things fresh. The book does drag a little at parts when it comes to moving the plot forward but it was never boring, which I think is the most important thing.
            It also helped that I found the setting to be very interesting. The privatizing of military power has always been a concept that has intrigued me, so I was immediately fascinated by the setting of Insignia and wanted to know more. Unfortunately you never get to see anything at the street level, but hopefully the following two books (Yeah, it’s another trilogy) will show it off. If not, I feel that S.J. Kincaid is missing out on a key perspective. Time will tell!          
Always in the background of Insignia are these questions about trust. Can you trust the military when they control the computer that controls your brain? Can you trust a government that is controlled by corporations just seeking the next dollar? These questions are never given an unwavering spotlight, but nevertheless, they are threaded throughout the narrative allowing you, the reader, to tackle them if you so please. They make up a (barely) hidden depth that once found feels good. It always feels good to think that you have found something that maybe not everyone else has, even if the accomplishment is little more than having a working brain, an unfortunately large accomplishment.
On top of everything else, Insignia’s ending is absolutely satisfying. Even without the next two books that come in the series, I came away feeling like the story has been told, which actually opens up a continuous fear of mine. I am always scared that a series of books will become episodic feeling, more like Nancy Drew than a continuous story. “What troubles our young heroes this time on…” Thankfully Insignia left more than enough open to allow for more books. A great ending for a great book.
            Insignia has been one of the best reads I’ve had in a long time. It didn’t do anything that made me shake my head and ask, “Why did you do that? You did everything right! And then… Then…" It managed to be funny without falling off the deep end, it managed to get me curious about the world, it managed to make me think… It managed quite a lot in an easy to read package. If you are looking for a fun Sci-fi novel then you could do a lot worse than Insignia. S.J. Kincaid has managed to pull off a very promising debut novel that marks the beginning of a very promising trilogy.


  1. I saw this book featured on Tea Time by Epic Reads today. It was the first time I've heard of it, and they compared it to Ender's Game--which is setting a very high bar.

    I'm not sure I've ever thought of video games as a moneymaking plot element, but it may be because I don't play them. I'm sure there must be books that are obviously written by people who don't play but think they're a very "teen" thing to include.

    1. It's not so much video games as it is any sort of hobby being used as a crutch to make up for bad writing. More frequently it's a sport, but I have seen it being used on us "nerds" too.

      No matter what the hobby is, it feels so cheap and offensive to those who enjoy said hobby. Imagine a romance being written by someone who's never even been on a date. How could they possibly know anything about it? (Ironically, I think a lot of romances are written by people who have never been in one.)

      As for the comparison between Insignia and Ender's Game, I have no clue. I haven't yet read Ender's Game, I know I'm terrible, but that isn't the first time I have heard the comparison.

    2. You have a point. You can often tell when authors put something into a YA books because "teens think it's cool!" Such as awkwardly mentioning Facebook 50 times. There's a difference between writing a book set in the present where technology naturally happens and trying really hard to dump in technology because "that's what teens care about!"

      It's funny you mention romance. I just stumbled across a post yesterday by an author who said she hasn't enjoyed reading romance as much since she met her husband because of lot it doesn't seem real. And she can't write YA romance because she has teenage nephews and they don't act all studly and mysterious like most YA love interests. :p Thinking about it, I see her point.

    3. It's the death rattle of their youth, isn't it? "See, I'm still hip! Right? Right...?"

      I'd be very interested to read that post. You wouldn't happen to remember where you found it, would you? Or the author's name?

    4. I'll have to dig around a little and see if I can find it again. It was an author whose web site I randomly stumbled across. I think she writes paranormal books,which I don't even read. ;)

  2. Found it!

    I think I initially found her blog from a link about the issue of two books having the same stock image on the cover.

    1. Interesting. Thanks for re-finding that. Definitely agree with a lot of what she says; I was nodding during the entire post. So many times romances are contrived, dull affairs that feel like puppets while giving nothing to the dynamic of the story.

  3. Well, I'm no help then. I read Twilight and haven't dared return to much in the way of paranormal. Twilight is more horror actually. A vampire who is over 100 years old dates a 16 year old girl, with the backbone of the plot being the girl trying to sleep with him Pedophilic to the extreme.

    Yeah, if you stumble upon it, send it my way. I love reading that sort of thing.