Saturday, August 29, 2020


by S.J. Kincaid
Recommended Ages: 13+

In his second year at the Pentagonal Spire, training to be a cybernetically augmented super-soldier fighting space drone battles over the solar system's mineral resources, Tom Raines faces a roadblock to his dream of becoming one of the Indo-American coalition's elite combatants. Due to his own lack of tact and unwillingness to bow down to people that he doesn't accept as his betters, Tom has alienated pretty much all of the CEOs of the corporations that control the government and keep the war going. While old General Marsh says he's counting on Tom to fix things so he can, maybe, one day, actually win the war and not just perpetuate the war machine, it's ironically the horrible Lieutenant Blackburn – he who would be Snape if Tom was Harry Potter – who gives the kid a fighting chance.

As icky as that is for Tom to contemplate, he also has to own up to some mistakes of his own, like one that has breached the Spire's security and let in an evil mind that threatens everything that matters to him. He also has to face his own worst fear – a very justifiable fear, based on an experience that nearly ended him – to help save the life of a friend. And no matter what else he does, it seems unavoidable that he must betray the enemy combatant whom he secretly loves.

Tom has a tough second year at the Spire. But what happens to him, and what he does, makes for compulsively fun reading. There was a passage, in which teenage trainees are trying out a thought interface that allows them to instant-message each other telepathically, that made me laugh so hard I had to take a break and call someone who would let me read it aloud to them. There are frank discussions among characters about questions of character (in a different sense of the word), wisdom, ethics, pragmatism and different kinds of courage. There were also political bits that force the reader to think about how the world might look a little farther down the slope we're on, depending on how slippery it gets in the near future. There were passages where the reader inwardly joins in the main characters' adolescent mischief, romantic joy, sorrow, horror and thrilling escapades. There are displays of cold brutality that should make you shudder, and of sudden defiance that might make you cheer.

All these things play against the backdrop of gosh-wow gadgetry and a fantasy world that, in spite of its imaginative power, requires very little alteration from the real world to paint one's mental picture. This is the second book of the "Insignia" trilogy, between Insignia and Catalyst. S.J. Kincaid is also the author of three "Diabolic" novels, The Diabolic, The Empress and The Nemesis.

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