08 October 2012

Insignia 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.

If I had to pick an overlying theme for this book it would be something about corporate control.  At its roots there is some preaching about corporations and how they control the government and get away with murder (in this book: literally).  There's some really deep stuff for something that read like an MG SF book (probably because the protagonist is only 14, but also because the pacing is fast and furious like MG).  It's easy to forget how chilling this premise is, though, because Insignia is truly funny.  It's also technical, and although it does a really good job of breaking down neuroscience and cybernetic computer programming in spots the worldbuilding reads more like a technical manual.  The characterization is great, and all the kids have distinct personalities free of stereotypes that develop and mature as they experience things.  There are adults, too, who are shown to be not perfect and yet still working for the greater good.  Overall, though, the result is a great read.  I think it can be very hard to be both technical and funny, but Kincaid pulls it off beautifully.  I think anyone who is a fan of Human.4 and Little Brother will love this book.

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