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Friday, January 31, 2014

Insignia (Insignia #1) by S. J. Kincaid

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 III. 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.

Released: July 10th 2012                 Pages: 446
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books   Source: Library

First Look: ****This had a lot of potential to be something I'd really enjoy.  Virtual reality is interesting, as well as the Ender's Game-like use of teens in combat.  Also, I was told it was hilarious.  Goodreads is full of glowing reviews, but I can't see why.  Well, here's a review that's not quite so glowing.  

Setting: ***** 
I'm intrigued by the idea of nations essentially being run by corporations, which sponsor the military.  This is a believable future, and made for an interesting backdrop.  However, I don't buy the idea that future wars would be fought in outer space, with no human or human civilization being destroyed in the process.  This just doesn't make sense to me.  Isn't the whole point of war to have two (or more) nations trying to annihilate one another until one is forced to surrender?  If your own nation, your own soil, your own people aren't being destroyed, why surrender?  If there's no surrender, there's never a winner.  In that case, what's the point?  There is none.

Characters: *****  
The main character, Tom Raines, was reckless, impulsive, and obnoxious.  He was prone to making stupid--not to mention dangerous--decisions.  I realize that some of this could be attributed to the fact that he's a hormone-filled 14-year-old boy (Was he 14?  I'm going with it.).  Still, this was excessive, and I know that 14-year-old boys are capable of making reasonable decisions just like the rest of us.  (My brother was 14 until a few months ago, and I'm certain he wouldn't act this reckless.)  He goes online and "meets" the world's most famous virtual fighter (all fighting is done by controlling spaceships and such remotely), and repeatedly challenges her to online games.  Oh, yeah, and she fights for the other side, so he's committing treason in order to play games.  Real smart.  But nope, this goes mostly well for him, and he actually develops a little romance with the enemy fighter.

The only semi-interesting characters were Wyatt and Medusa, who are the only major female characters in this teenage boy angst-ridden novel.  The other characters seemed to think Wyatt was incredibly socially awkward, but she didn't seem that bad to me.  Having a blunt personality does not make you awkward.  She may have said things that are normally a little too "honest" to say in public, but I liked her for it.  Everyone else at the training academy felt one-sided and generic.

Plot: ***** This book's plot falls into the same trap as Ender's Game: it's almost all training for action, but little real action.  Tom did some actual virtual fighting at the end, but mostly, the book focuses on his training.  This got long and tedious, and I kept waiting for something real to happen.  They play the training simulations over and over, but there's no conflict.  It was also full of the typical drama that happens whenever you have a book about teens in a boarding school situation.  We have rivalries that form instantly, for no good reason.  Pranks, angst, crushes, and such.  This plot was interrupted one too many times for some sort of prank competition.  Overall, the pacing of the book was fine, but I wanted real conflict, not just simulated conflict or petty rivalries.

Uniqueness: ***** This book borrowed heavily from Ender's Game. Both books feature a young boy being shipped off to a training school where they learn to virtually control weapons in outer space to fight some interplanetary war.  Insignia is just a slightly less repetitive Ender's Game with more teenage boy humor and romance, minus the social commentary.

Writing: ***** The narration was full of gems like this: "Medusa was extraordinary, because she was extraordinary."

Ladies and gentlemen, let's take a moment to think about the fact that someone was paid to write those words.*  The book also had moments like this: "Beautiful girls didn't hang around to talk to short, ugly guys with bad acne."  Which implies that girls only speak to guys they find attractive.  This is so untrue, and all it does is make girls look shallow and petty.  I'm a girl, and I'll talk to any guy who is capable of carrying on a worthwhile conversation.  I don't care if he's "ugly".  If he's as attractive as, say, Andrew Garfield, but can't carry on a worthwhile conversation, he isn't worth my time.

Also, other reviewers keep saying that this book is funny.  I read the whole thing and I must've missed the funny parts, because I didn't find any.  Unless conversations like this one are supposed to be funny.  Would this be funny if I was a 14-year-old boy?  I'm guessing not, but...maybe?

Nothing not already mentioned above.

Not-so-great: Why were all the students--new recruits as well as ones who'd been there for a few years--grouped together in the same classes?  Why would they all be learning the same things?  Especially since the classes shown were all basic information (all the better to infodump with!).

Overall: Insignia could have been an exciting sci-fi adventure, but, well, it wasn't.  The main character, Tom, made too many stupid decisions for me to ever respect him.  Only a few characters were actually interesting and didn't feel like cardboard cutouts.  The plot had too many training scenes and too little real conflict.  It borrowed obviously and heavily from Ender's Game.  The worldbuilding made little sense.  Overall, I suppose I didn't dislike it enough to give it two stars, so I'll have to give it three, but...I won't be reading the sequel.

Similar books: Ender's Game is basically Insignia's sophisticated older cousin.  This book also reminds me of The Eye of Minds and The Lost Code.

*It's not just this book, though.  So-called "classics" do the same thing.  Check out this eloquence from Albert Camus' The Stranger: "It was then that I realized that you could either shoot or not shoot."  I'm so glad Camus could clarify that for us.
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