Tom Raines is suddenly recruited into the US Army to train as a virtual reality Combatant to see if he is good enough to help fight World War Three. Equipped with a new computer chip in his brain, it looks like Tom might actually become somebody. But what happens when you start to question the rules?
Fast-paced and futuristic, INSIGNIA introduces snarky Tom, brutal Elliot and alluring Heather. In this first of a trilogy, Kincaid asks significant questions concerning the use of technology and the value of human life.
When I was a teenager I was the proud owner of a Sinclair ZX Spectrum, and I used to spend hours playing on it, though nowhere near the amount of time that a lot of my game-loving students seem to devote to their X-Boxes or PS3s. However, at some point I grew out of it, although sitting here now I cannot remember when that was, and it was only last year when I treated myself to a PS3 that I rediscovered my love of gaming. I’m not exactly what you would call an expert on the subject, and my skills are pretty poor in comparison with the majority of game-loving students I teach, but with the quality of games available these days, and the added online element that we did not have back in the 80s, I can understand why young people, and specifically boys, read a lot less these days. I certainly read a lot less in the week following the arrival of Batman: Arkham City!
So it was with great interest that I picked up a copy of Insignia by SJ Kincaid, sent to me by the generous people at Hot Key Books, a brand new British publishing house. Hot Key’s press information included the blurb I have included at the top of this review, and although I thought it looked interesting, I certainly did not expect it to completely hook me the way that it did. Insignia is Harry Potter for gamers, with a six-pack of Top Gun thrown in for good measure, and reading it was like playing an incredibly addictive video game – once I started I just couldn’t put it down, and my wife had to literally tear it out of my hands in the end so that I could honour my promise to mow the lawn.
Insignia is set in the future, on a planet earth that is slap bang in the middle of World War III. However, this is not World War III in the way that we would imagine it to be, with governments launching nuclear missiles and other weapons of mass destruction at each other. Instead, it is a war waged by multi-national corporations, and one in which there are no human casualties at all. This war is being fought far out in the solar system, with control over valuable mining rights and rare natural resources the ultimate prizes, and where the fleets of space fighters are controlled by the minds of teenagers, from the safety of the Pentagon (in the case of those fighting for corporations allied to the US at least).
Tom Raines is a nobody, the son of a down-on-his-luck gambler, who spends his life following his father from casino to casino. The only joy Tom gets out of life is in the VR parlors that are invariably found in the casinos and hotels that his father ends up in. In these palors Tom can lose himself in the games, and for a couple of hours at least he is no longer the loser son of a loser father - he is a master gamer. It is his instinctual skill at gaming, and his mastery of tactics that brings him to the attention of a General in the US Army who is looking for someone a little different to join the elite group of teens who are fighting the war out in the solar system. Through a little persuasion, Tom finds himself enrolling to train with the best of the best, and his life his changed forever.
At this point, just because I need to get it out of my system, I am going to draw a few parallels with the Harry Potter series. I’m not saying that this is ‘the new Harry Potter’, as long-time readers of The Book Zone will know just how much it annoys me when reviewers claim this about a book, but I think the similarities between the two stories will be what make this book a huge hit with young teen readers. First up there is Tom – a boy who finds himself in a military academy surrounded by people who are already ‘in the know’ and who he sees as being much better than him because of this. All the other trainees have been selected as a result of their fantastic achievements (Mathlete of the year, winners of awards for this or that, Heavyweight Wrestling Champion, etc), whilst Tom is there because he is good at playing games. Secondly there are the characters themselves. Tom soon finds himself making friends with Vikram, who sees himself as a bit of a joker, and Wyatt, the geeky girl who just happens to be an expert on all things computer/software related. The cadets are also sorted into Divisions (like houses), there are bullies (in another Division of course) and there is a member of staff who Tom feels is out to get him. Yes, it all sounds a little familiar, but if HP had never been around then all we would be saying is that the set-up was typical of any school anywhere in the world. Yes there are similarities, but Insignia is most definitely not another cheap rip-off of Harry Potter.
One of the aspects of the Harry Potter books that made them such a huge success was the development of the various characters and the interaction between them. I guess this is why we so often see in children’s literature a character who is put in a situation where he immediately feels out-of-his-depth but is surrounded by new friends who will help him/her fit conquer his/her insecurities. This is just like real life for young people, starting new schools, having to make new friends, and so on, and therefore readers find it very easy to connect with a new character. I loved the way SJ Kincaid wrote her characters and the they interacted in the story, with the banter, pranks, dares and so on that I witness day in day out as a teacher. There are moments in this story which will have you laughing out loud, and there are moments when you might also feel tears of a very different nature start to well in your eyes.
I worked out a long time ago that when I really love a book I tend to struggle to write a concise review and I end up rambling on and on. Looking back at what I have written so far (more than 1000 words!), I would suggest that this is evidence enough regarding my love of this story. There is so much more I want to say but I feel I should bring this to a close. It has everything I think an 11+ boy or girl could ask for in a book – action, adventure, and a plot that races along like a runaway train, all anchored in the world of computer games. It also deals with themes such a friendship, personal identity, corporate greed and corruption. Despite being the first book a trilogy it also has a ‘proper’ end to it, but Insignia doesn’t need a cliffhanger ending to encourage readers to ache longingly for the sequel, the characters and the quality of the storytelling are what will have young people coming back for more. You can keep your Hunger Games, your Divergents and your Blood Read Roads, this is the dystopic future society that I have enjoyed reading about more than any others in the past year, and it will be Insignia that I will be pushing to all the kids at school come September.
Insignia is due to be published in August and my thanks go to Hot Key Books for sending me a copy to review.