Taken at face value, S.J. Kincaid's Insignia is a competent, albeit derivative, science fiction novel about underdog teenager Tom Raines, who is given the chance to prove himself by joining a military program to become part of an elite team of teen virtual combatants during World War III.

World War III is a bloodless war: spacecrafts are remotely controlled by virtual warriors in a fight between Corporations who have aligned themselves with either the Indo-Americans or the Russo-Chinese (we know this via very clumsy info-dumps disguised as school lessons). There are obvious parallels with Harry Potter (Kirkus’ official review dubbed it – rather appropriately – “Hogwarts-at-the-Pentagon due to the way the teens are organised in different ‘houses’ inside the training facility”), Ender’s Game, and the more recent Ready Player One.
Unfortunately for me, I can never take things at face value. I always have to question and dig for deeper explanation and meaning. Even though, superficially speaking, Insignia could be taken as a fun read, I found that once I peeled back its many layers, I was less than thrilled about it.

Take, for example, the protagonist. Tom starts off the novel as a veritable underdog. His problems are as many as they are genuine: his father is unemployed and has a serious gambling problem, and his mother is absent. He is homeless, uneducated, and physically speaking, he is sensitive about his short stature and facial acne. Despite these setbacks, Tom happens to be a daredevil and a genius gamer, which puts him on the radar of U.S. Intrasolar Forces. Once Tom accepts the invitation to join their ranks and is given a neural processor upgrade (meaning: he now has a computer on his brain) all of his problems magically disappear! He has a home and friends, his brain is updated with all the information he instantly needs, he has a growth spurt and his acne problem goes away.

That poses a problem in terms of his character arc because now Tom 2.0 is nothing but an extremely special snowflake with his genius virtual abilities. Once most of his internal conflict is magically solved, the only things left are the external ones which all come from his eviiiiil enemies (another student, a professor, his stepfather, evil corporations, etc.) and this is really, really boring.

This is the biggest problem with Insignia: this is a novel about a serious subject like world war and yet its plot focuses on petty little things. The fact that for most of the novel students spend their days engaging in games and playing around removes any sense of actual danger from the story. It also doesn’t help that it is nary impossible to take the Evil Corporations That Run The World or the U.S. Intrasolar Forces seriously, especially when their intelligence work is so obviously flawed. Just about any 14-year-old can hack into their systems, Tom often engages in game-play with his country’s biggest enemy, Medusa (whom he has a crush on), and nobody finds out until it is too late. It is obvious that the fact that everybody seems to be connected to the same computer systems means nothing in this world.  

Tom has had a computer implanted in his head by people who can effectively control his every movement and this is meant to be one of the main themes of this series but the potential of this storyline is squandered in multiple ways. Imagine the possibilities of brain manipulation leading to an unreliable narrative! Such a shame that Tom has his brain manipulated but this is done so overtly here that it effectively removed any tension whatsoever from that particular arc.  
Finally, there is the extremely frustrating gender essentialism throughout the book. Anything that is cowardly or bad is “girly” or “pansy.” A boy makes fun of a girl’s hands by calling them man-hands. When she finally finds a voice to get back at him, it is by calling his own hands “girly.”  There are things that “men” do and things that “women” do.

Not to mention the fact that the greatest warrior in the world is a girl, but whose Achilles' heel turns out to be the fact that she is ugly and scarred. The “hero” uses that fact to humiliate her publicly and win their fight. This does say a lot about the “hero,” how vicious he is, and just how far he is willing to go to win - actually, this is an awesome turn of events and paints a complicated moral picture. What’s not so awesome about this, however, is that this plan to bring her down via humiliation of her appearance actually works.      

One can definitely see these as  “realistic” portrayals of teenage guys. But playing the realistic card in a book where there is a virtual World War III and teens have brain implants is a bit disingenuous. It always frustrates me when in a creatively imagined world, gender roles are still played in such a traditional manner as though it is impossible to even imagine a different world.  

Well, I can.

And that’s why, in Book Smugglerish, Insignia gets an underwhelmed 4 out of 10.

Thea James and Ana Grilo are The Book Smugglers, a website for speculative fiction and YA. You can find also find them at Twitter.