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Insignia by  S.J. Kincaid (2012)
Insignia by S.J. Kincaid (2012)
by S.J. Kincaid
Hardcover Edition
Publication Date: July 10th, 2012
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books (Harper Collins Imprint)
Buy a copy via Amazon.
Synopsis from Goodreads.

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?

My Thoughts:
A disappointing, middle-grade version of Ready Player One (which was one of my favorite books of the year,) is the best summary of my reactions to S. J. Kincaid’s Insignia. The problems I found in Insignia reminded me of the ones I found in Wesley King’s The Vindico; both books had an compelling plot, creative ideas, but he execution failed to bring those ideas to life and grazed over heavy-handed issues in exchange for superficial cliches.

My Suspension of Disbelief is Straining, These People Need Anger Management!:
First of all, all these 14-15 year olds are supposed to be the cream of the crop with exceptional intelligence and abilities (Figure Skating Champion, Scholarship winners, etc.) With the aid of a neural processor in their brains they have become even smarter than usual. Actually, their intelligence is optional since they just “download” knowledge instead of learning. Whatever they don’t know their computer brains will look it up for them. They are also given perfect complexions and grow six inches in a week. Yet, despite their intelligence, their priorities only lie in teasing each other with stuff like “girly hands” and “man-hands.” Not sure what the intelligence changed in them. The knowledge certainly hasn’t made them any more empathetic, as they spend most of their time plotting to ruin each other’s lives (and are encouraged to do so!.)

What tested my suspension of disbelief was how easy it was for characters to make decisions. Tom accidentally (being digitally manipulated as part of a class demo) bumps into the class bully, and all of a sudden the guy hates his guts. Programming teacher, Blackburn, decides to “punish” Tom for not revealing who hacked into the school system (which I argue, is the right thing to do,) and then he becomes an evil “villain” soon after. For an adult, Blackburn is irrationally quick to jump into conclusions: Tom mentions a word from Blackburn’s devastating past, then within five seconds he decides Wyatt, his best pupil, is a flithy liar, then proceeds to stomp out of the room like a five year old.

What was even more confusing was how easy it was for Tom to be able to get a classmate to hack into the school system for him. It went like this:
Vik (Tom’s best friend): Hey, hack into the school system to change Tom’s profile!
Hacker (Wyatt): No! I got in trouble last time! I can’t risk it. Go away.
Vik: Your friend said to.
Hacker: Oh, in that case, sure!

What…just happened there? Is Wyatt bipolar? Multiple personality disorder? And world-class military security was hacked by a 15 year old in seconds?!?! So much for security.

Suspension of Disbelief Continued: War Is Fought in Space! And Funded by Companies! Exciting!
To stop violence wars are fought in space (controlled on Earth) over resources. These wars are sponsored by large companies, who sponsor these teen fighters. Not sure who thought it was such a brilliant idea to use resources (what you are running out of!) to building spacecraft for war. If you want to avoid violence, why not just have the whole war in virtual reality? Better yet, let’s just solve conflict over a game of chess. No need to waste fossil fuels. Why would they let make spacecrafts, capable of destroying satellites, or crashing into Earth to “avoid violence”? And controlled by TEENAGERS who have spent countless hours playing video games–and none driving a car. This is a recipe for disaster.

Tom, I Really Thought He Would Have More Depth
I have to constantly remind myself that he is fourteen, just so I can forgive his selfishness and his enormous ego. He starts off as a troubled teen, facing a drunk father and a mother who left him for a new family. He has acne and no friends in school. He also shows up late to school every day and makes stupid excuses. I could relate to his guy and wanted to root for him. Then, he became a perfect cyborg and all his worries magically disappeared! Even though he had a troubled past, Tom never showed signs of it. I guess he was preoccupied staring at beautiful girls.
Every time he was “attracted” to a beautiful girl, I winced. I thought he was the most interesting when he was “zombified.” I was hoping for an elaborate revenge plan where he plays the part until the end. I should know better. The author tried to convince me that Tom was trustworthy and would die before selling his friends out, but I didn’t buy it. For a guy that would exploit a girl’s self-esteem for his own profit? No way.
I admire him for keeping his word, but felt much could’ve been avoided if he just told the truth. I understand that he feared that his friends would be kicked out, but if he and programmers are in such high demand, I’m sure his friends would be safe.

Apparently due to an unhealthy diet, Tom can’t grow anymore. I am not sure what this means (even though Tom was bummed out about it) since the topic was dropped pretty quickly.

I was expecting more guts from you, girl!

Flat Characters:
Yuri, Vik, and Wyatt are supposed to be Tom’s best friends, but to be honest I didn’t feel the chemistry. Where happened to their backstory or at least some hobbies? I only know Yuri is a suspected spy, Wyatt is a talented programmer, and Vik is a joke-cracking Indian. Not sure what their dreams or aspirations are. Even Tom himself is pretty elusive, it appears aside from getting a girl and being famous, he has no aspirations. When Tom’s friends sense something wrong with him, they dismiss him as a jerk, and his best friend walks away from him. Some friend. I just never thought of them as friendly classmates more than friends.
My favorite character was Tom’s dad, a minor character that had the most depth despite his short appearance. He knows he isn’t the best father and despite his worries, lets his son join the military. He is also immediately there for Tom when he wants him. Not a bad father, despite being a drunk gambler.

Names With Confusing Gender:
Maybe it’s just me, but it took me a while to remember that Yuri is a guy and Wyatt is a guy.

Suits Are EXPENSIVE, The Use of Money:
Okay, I admit I’m not well-versed in the suit business, but I did a Google search. Dalton Prestwick, the rich “villain,” wears a twenty-thousand suit. He can afford a twenty-thousand suit, but apparently his credit card limit is only at fifty thousand (or at least the one he gives Tom.) Why he would give a fourteen year old his credit card is beyond me. On the other hand, Tom is not shabby either, wearing an eleven-thousand dollar suit in the same scene. For that price tag, it must be some custom tailored masterpiece–but Tom was never even measured. Oh well.

I don’t mind characters wearing expensive suits, what I did mind was how jarring it was for these price tags to be thrown in. I didn’t get the intended sense of luxury and grandiose, only the narrator being lazy and using long numbers instead of vivid adjectives to describe wealth.

Simplistic Writing Hurt the World-Building:
The writing is what made me feel Insignia should have been a middle-grade novel instead of young-adult. For a sci-fi book, especially one that deals with virtual reality, I am extra picky on world-building. While Insignia had some nice ideas, such as recreating historical battles, the execution was paltry. Many of these scenes were too short for me to be immersed in them. These scenes, which I hoped to be the focus of the novel were used to prove Tom’s violent, rebellious attitude. I wonder how Tom will react to a game where the goal is not to kill anyone.

Despite the praise, I found Insignia disappointing. It adds nothing new to the genre I haven’t seen before. I was not immersed in Tom’s world, but I did appreciate the fast pacing that kept me reading even if I was not impressed with the characters, world-building, and plot. While I was reading, I kept comparing it to Ready Player One, whose protagonist had a similar past, and also had a crush on a girl he has never met–but Ready Player One had better execution that made you want to be in the world. What Ready Player One accomplished in two chapters, Insignia failed to do in 444 pages. Despite being focused gaming, Ready Player still manages to make you think about the consequences of immersing yourself in virtual reality and what that means for society. Insignia seems to promise that depth with he mention of World War Three and parental neglect, but chooses to avoid those topics for one about an “average” boy who was to deal with evil professors, military officers, and corporate executives. Despite my gripes, I would still recommend it to a younger audience looking for a laugh (not my kind of humor, but others have been saying how hilarious it is.)

Rating: C