Sunday, February 16, 2020


by S.J. Kincaid
Recommended Ages: 13+

Tom is something like a dystopian future boy raised by wolves. He has grown up in a series of casinos, trailing behind his gambling addict dad, after his mom dumped them to shack up with a corporate twerp. Tom himself has learned to survive, and even to be a parent for his parent, by conning cocky gamesters into trying to beat him at his own game – which is to say, anything in Virtual Reality. Illegal betting, cutting school (a last-chance, VR school sorta like the one the hero goes to in Ready Player One), and an unhealthy diet have worked together to mold Tom into a shrimpy, zit-pocked, unsavory young specimen of humanity's bright future. But he does have the exact combination of two traits that a certain Gen. Marsh has been looking for – tactical brilliance and a killer instinct. Marsh recruits Tom right out of the casino and takes him to the Pentagonal Spire – you know, that great big tower thingy built right atop the Pentagon – where the Indo-American alliance trains its elite defence force for World War III. Kids, naturally.

Strike that: kids, surgically implanted with a microprocessor that turns them into geniuses. They don't have to study; all their lessons download straight into their brain. Tom's chip, in tandem with nutritional supplements, see him through a quick growth spurt (alas, terminated too soon), clears up his acne and enables him to exercise and practice combat skills in a totally immersive Virtual Reality world. Ultimately, his goal and that of his classmates is to make it to the top level of the program, where a few elite kids duke it out with the Russo-Chinese bloc using outer-space weapons controlled by their technologically enhanced brains.

That's where warfare's at, in Tom's era. No more blowing up stuff or wiping out people. Just a remote-control match between two superpowers over the resources of the outer solar system. Tom can't wait to be part of it. He chafes against the authority structure of his school. He crushes on an enemy combatant whose genius for mayhem he can spot anywhere, even though her (?) identity is Top Secret. He gets recruited, against his will, into a conspiracy to get a combatant sponsored by his mom's boyfriend's corporation into the upper echelon. He gets accused of having something to do with a sabotage threat against the whole program. And he has to face a terrible dilemma between two choices – either to be cashiered out of the program and lose everything that has started to make him special, or to have his mind torn apart by a cybersecurity officer who is obsessed with learning his secrets. When he goes for Plan C, where he just has to win a battle against the unbeatable Medusa in front of an avidly watching world, he goes all in.

Wow. Just wow. This is a terrific piece of entertainment. Tom is not a 100-percent sympathetic character, but you get what motivates him and you enjoy the mischief he makes. It's a book full of weirdly innovative ideas and unexpected twists. It sizzles with action, one exciting battle after another. It pops with humor and fun banter between oddball characters you'll come to love. It has multiple layers of conflict, each of them compelling in its own way, and floating over everything is a thought-provoking look at the implications of having a chip in your brain that could make you think, say, do or be whatever the person controlling the code wants you to. It could make you a different person. This isn't the only issue the book invites readers to grapple with. There's also an insight into a point in history, which is just about upon us now, where warfare and even genocide are carried out not so much by nations as by multi-national corporations. Tom's possible future is kind of chilling, actually. But he's committed to it, and it'll be fun to see where he goes in it.

This is the first book of the Insignia series, which also includes Vortex and Catalyst. People who liked Orson Scott Card's Ender series may get a kick out of it, but I reckon it's the people who feel Ender's Game is lacking something – like, a sense of humor – who will be most pleased to find it here, in abundance. S.J. Kincaid is also the author of the Diabolic series (The Diabolic, The Empress), whose third book (The Nemesis) is due for release in August 2020.

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