Author: S.J. Kincaid

Publication: 2012, Katherine Tegen Books

Pages: 446

Overall Rating: bth_4-star-rating_zps38e772a0[1]

Rating for Action: bth_35_zps7a173504[1]

Quantity of Action: bth_25_zps13f4f4eb[1]

Age Category: 13+

Brief Summary: Tom’s dad is a professional gambler. They drift from casino to casino, but these days his loses more often than not and it’s only Tom’s skills as a VR gaming hustler that keeps a roof over their head. He rarely goes to school and knows the future looks grim. But all that changes when someone notices his gaming skills. Suddenly, Tom finds himself being recruited – offered a spot at the Pentagonal Spire, an elite military academy where he’ll be trained to engage in virtual warfare with Russo-Chinese forces and their corporate sponsors as they fight a bloodless World War III for control of space. At first, the Spire seems like everything Tom could ever have wanted – friends, impossibly cool tech and the chance to really do something with his life. But there are secret forces at work, and by the time Tom figures out what’s really going on it may be too late.

Age of Main Character: 14

What I Liked the Most: There’s plenty to like here. Kincaid has created a frighteningly real world where governments are all but meaningless, poverty is everywhere, and all power rests in the hands of twelve corporations that control everything from the water we drink to the food we eat – corporations that are answerable to no one.

But the best part of the book for me was the Spire itself. Kincaid does a fantastic job of bringing the school to life – the friendships, the rivalries, all laid out with just the right balance of humor and emotion. It felt like a living, breathing place, and an impossibly cool one at that. Every student at the Spire is implanted with a neural processor that turns their brain into a living computer. There’s nothing new about this concept, but Kincaid puts it to excellent use as the processor influences every aspect of life at the school. Classes last a mere 20 minutes each, where students are tested on the information that was downloaded to their processor the night before. The processor speeds up Tom’s growth, adding six inches in a week, and it turns the bland nutrient bars he has to eat into whatever his mind desires, from pizza to burgers. But best of all is the calisthenics class, where the processors transport them to virtual battlefields so they can work out by running from a horde of angry Scottish warriors or using weights as if they were swords to do battle with a Roman legion.

What I Liked the Least: Cool as the book was, it did have one glaring flaw. Tom never really seemed to change or grow. He gained new skills, made new friends, stood up to new enemies, but nothing about his basic personality ever really changed. He started the book as loyal to a tee, stubborn, deathly afraid of what others thought of him, and unbelievably arrogant – and he ends it pretty much the same way. I kept waiting for a change that never came. Did it make him any less fun as a character? No, but it was a bit of a disappointment.

Also, there are FAR too many times over the course of the book where Tom declares that he would rather have his eyes gouged, be flayed alive, or suffer some other grievous bodily injury than look weak. Once or twice would have been fine, but he must do it at least half a dozen times, and by the end it was starting to piss me off and served as one of the clearest signs yet that he hadn’t grown or changed a bit.

How Good was the Action? Insignia isn’t particularly heavy on the action, and most of the scenes that do exist involve either bloodless virtual combat where the outcome doesn’t carry a lot of consequences or programming battles where the goal is to infect your opponent with a humorous, non-lethal virus. That said the climactic battle – a space fight between Tom and a powerful opponent, each piloting their own VR craft – was excellent, with plenty of emotional weight to give it meaning and a great balance of blow-by-blow detail, emotional reaction, and large-scale view. And the way Tom wins is as nasty as it is creative.

How Engaging was the Story? It definitely pulls you in. While I didn’t always particularly like Tom, he had more than enough going on to make him a sympathetic character. Life at the Spire was fully fleshed out, and the classes and relationships were more than enough to keep me turning the pages until outside forces intervened to set the real story in motion. From there on, Tom finds himself fighting for his friends, his future, and his very sanity in an emotionally thrilling arc that drove the story through to its satisfying end.

Overall Assessment: Cool technology, a frighteningly possible future, and a finely balanced mix of humor and emotional angst drive this creative new entry in the dystopian genre. While it might not be an action-packed read, it’s still plenty of fun.

Profanity: Little to none.

Sex: A virtual kiss, and one of the female characters does some fairly intense flirting. In one Virtual Reality scene, Tom has been cast as an Amazon warrior and can’t stop checking out his own breasts.

Violence: Yes, but most of the violence that takes place is virtual, such as being gutted or beheaded in calisthenics, a virtual scene where they’re wolves chasing down and killing a moose, or fighting as warriors in the battle of Troy. There’s blood, but you know it isn’t real. The one scene that offers some genuine violence happens to be bloodless, but is gruesome non-the-less, as Tom is subjected to a severe form of psychological torture in order to figure out whether or not he’s committed treason.

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