Thursday, October 30, 2014

Interview with SJ Kincaid, author of the Insignia trilogy and US/UK giveaway of Catalyst!

Welcome back, everyone! So excited to get to host this terrific interview with SJ Kincaid, the author of the Insignia trilogy!

If you read my last post, you know how much I enjoyed this trilogy. I loved getting some of my burning questions answered by her, and hope that you guys all go out and buy it now. It's worth it!

Goodreads description of Insignia:
"Insignia expertly combines humor with a disarming and highly realistic view of the future. The characters are real, funny, and memorable. You won't be able to put this book down."—Veronica Roth, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Divergent and Insurgent

The earth is in the middle of WWIII in Insignia, the first entry in S. J. Kincaid's fast-paced sci-fi adventure trilogy perfect for fans of Ender's Game.

The planet's natural resources are almost gone, and war is being fought to control the assets of the solar system. The enemy is winning. The salvation may be Tom Raines. Tom doesn't seem like a hero. He's a short fourteen-year-old with bad skin. But he has the virtual-reality gaming skills that make him a phenom behind the controls of the battle drones.

As a new member of the Intrasolar Forces, Tom's life completely changes. Suddenly, he's someone important. He has new opportunities, friends, and a shot at having a girlfriend. But there's a price to pay. . . 

As a kid, S. J. Kincaid wanted to be an astronaut, but she decided to become a full-time writer after spending a year studying in Edinburgh and living next to a haunted graveyard. However, after writing many novels and having had no success in finding a publisher for any of them, S. J. decided she would write one more, then give up for good. That last book turned out to be INSIGNIA, and she hasn't looked back since. Follow S. J. Kincaid at or on Twitter: @SJKincaidBooks. On Facebook: sjkincaidbooks.

1. People have compared your books to a host of other well known books including Harry Potter, Ender’s Game, and Ready Player One. Did any of these books inspire you before you wrote your trilogy? Do you agree with the comparisons? How did you try to move beyond it (by the way, I think you totally succeeded, especially in the last two books)?

            Harry Potter and Ender’s Game are amazing, so I’m flattered by the comparisons. I’ve also heard great things about Ready Player One. If I were to pinpoint my biggest influences before the trilogy, I’d say: 1) Star Trek (this was my childhood), 2) Starship Troopers the movie (campy military sci-fi movie/political parody), 3) Scrubs the TV show (the mixture of tone between hilarity and moments of real seriousness), 4) Chuck the TV show (computer in the brain), and 5) Catch-22 (the absurd tone set in a military type environment).
            I really do think everything has been done before, and every single book, movie, TV show will draw upon familiar elements. The real secret is to organize things in a way that makes sense to you and create a world that you feel passionate about and invested in. I really had fun building the world of INSIGNIA and I miss it now that the series is done.

2. I absolutely love your world building. Did you do research for it? How did you go about creating it?
            Thank you! It took a lot of work building the world, and it’s one reason I already miss the series. I miss the world.
            I was in nursing school when I wrote it, so that put me temporarily in a mode where I could understand a lot more pathophysiology, etc. than I do now. That really helped me build the science of neural processors. I based a lot of the computer stuff on my own (limited) understanding of my own PC. As for the setting, the Pentagonal Spire, I went to a boarding school so drew upon that. I wanted there to be some equivalent to dormitories, and there are a few basic places you need with every live-in school. I also knew I didn’t want them to be full-blown military because that would require far more research and leave more grounds for inaccuracy, so I just had them be wards of the military, not members of it. The thing that required the most research was the technology. I read a lot of articles about likely near-future technology. I didn’t want anything too outlandish. I did want to stick as close to reality as possible.
            As for the political systems, etc. I really just exaggerated a lot of what’s already happening. The USA did actually form this alliance with India under George W Bush, and China and Russia have been moving towards countering US influence by strengthening their own relations. That part was probably the easiest of the world-building.

3. My favorite part of your books are the characters. Did any of your characters surprise you? If so, which one and why?
            Elliot Ramirez. I originally planned for him to be a rival of Tom’s, and even set it up like he was going to be the King Arthur to Tom’s Mordred, but I grew to like Elliot and began to regard him as a sort of mentor figure to Tom instead. He’s very much Tom’s opposite in many ways, and Tom has a lot he could learn from him.

4. Tom goes through a lot of growth over the span of the three books. There were several moments, particularly in book one and two where I wasn’t sure if I liked him, but because of your skill at storytelling and world building, I knew I was sticking around until the end. Was it difficult to write Tom and give him storylines and personal characteristics that you knew might rub people the wrong way? Can you tell us a little about risk taking when writing these books (because I think you take lots of risks, which totally pays off)?
            LOL, yes, he does go through a lot! Tom’s defining characteristic is his sheer stubbornness. He’s led a very insecure, unstable life and he’s been in a disadvantaged position for most of it, so he’s developed this uncompromising, unbending need to maintain his own sense of dignity. It’s a matter of pride for him, not ‘letting the bastards get him down’, but approaching the world with this attitude unwittingly creates enemies where he doesn’t even need to have them. One goal I always had with Tom was this: he will always be the primary cause of his own troubles. It makes Tom incredibly fun to write because there is always going to be conflict or turmoil of some sort once he is involved in a situation. If any other character was the center of INSIGNIA, the entire story probably wouldn’t have happened-- because no one else would’ve made his decisions.
            Having said that, he’s very much of a love-him-or-hate-him character. He polarizes both in the book and out of it. I’m okay with that, because people who don’t necessarily care for Tom generally seem to identify with Wyatt, Vik, Blackburn or Medusa. That’s one of the huge advantages of writing  story with prominent secondary characters-- it gives you more shots at winning a reader’s interest.
            Because Tom had a very prominent flaws (pride, stubbornness, insensitivity), I had both his strengths and weaknesses available to explore, and many of the risks in the series sprang from the idea of doing that. His stubbornness was in one way a very real strength, so of course, that begged the question in my mind about just what it would take to overcome that strength-- or could it be overcome? As soon as I have those questions, that’s when I want to take risks in the story.

5. Which character are you most like and why?
            Vik, but my humor is more teasing, less needling.

6. What were your favorite and least favorite parts about writing a trilogy?
            My favorite was evolving the characters over time, writing things into the third book that closed threads from the first book, (hopefully) surprising readers who might’ve expected something else, and just really digging in and getting invested in a narrative. My least favorite? Ugh, writing book two! That was a nightmare. Necessary, but a nightmare.

7. Who would be your dream cast for the trilogy?
            I have images of the kids, and don’t really know young Hollywood enough to match their faces to anyone. For several of the adults, I definitely have Hollywood actor mental images. Blackburn was inspired by John C McGinley’s Doctor Cox on Scrubs, physically and the way he spoke. Dalton, I always pictured as Rob Lowe. As for Vengerov, my mental image was Daniel Craig meets Vladimir Putin.

8. If you could spend one day in your world, what would you do and why?
            I’d sneak onto a spaceship and go into space. I really would love to go to space one day. I refuse to get my eyes lasered in case space tourism ever takes off. (Lasik surgery can create small perforations in the retina that can rupture in space, apparently!)

9. Can you give a few words of advice to aspiring writers?
            Read a lot, write a lot. Hear the word ‘no’ until it doesn’t bother you anymore. And never stop trying.

10. What are you working on next? Can you give us a teaser?
            It’s a little early to say! I have a sci-fi that is only a bit younger than INSIGNIA I’m hoping will go somewhere, and a tentative YA I’m working on. Nothing substantial yet. I’m in grad school for creative writing, so that’s my primary focus at the moment.

And now, enter to win the third book in the trilogy, CATALYST! I'm also chipping in a swag pack, to make this giveaway international! :-)

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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Review of the Insignia Trilogy by SJ Kincaid and Giveaway (US, UK)

Hey, gang! I know it's been really way too long since I've posted. But my life has been a roller coaster for the past several months in many wonderful but very stressful ways. My newborn baby girl, Olivia, has been keeping me up at nights, and my research has been keeping me busy nonstop during the days. But it's been rare that I've fallen so hard for a book, and I did, for the last of a promising trilogy. So that's why I'm appearing briefly to give this trilogy its well deserved kudos. That said, I'm getting ahead of myself.

I read Insignia the day it came out, after SJ Kincaid came for a signing in St. Louis.  I had never heard of the book before, but there were some favorable comparisons to Ender's Game, so I figured I should give it a try.

Insignia (Insignia, #1)
Insignia is about a 14 year old boy named Tom who has nothing going for him and keeps his gambling addict father and himself clothed and housed through gaming. The government hears of him and soon he is whisked to the Pentagonal Spire where he is implanted with a neural device that allows him to enhance his knowledge with downloadable content; he effectively becomes a soldier in the military who want to use his talents for the current world war. Soon, he is pitted against the deadly but fascinating Medusa in a battle to end all battles.

The first time I read this book, I felt like the author basically transplanted the Hogwarts trio into Ender's Game. I could match up plot lines and characters from each book to the ones in Insignia. At the same time, it was still entertaining to read (since I obviously liked both of the aforementioned books). And the last 25% (with one exception) made it all worth reading because it finally focused on my favorite character of all, Medusa, and it veered away from the previous formulas a bit more. The characters are lovable and funny. Since I liked Hermione the best from Harry Potter, it's not surprising that I enjoyed Wyatt, her counterpart, probably the second most after Medusa. The protagonist, Tom, is very likeable but is definitely flawed and adolescent-- Kincaid knows how to write 14 year old boy perspectives! Blackburn, the Snape equivalent, is appropriately creepy. And Yuri, the Russian, was really fun-- and possibly the most original of the cast.

Because of the world building and the intriguing cast that seemed to come into their own by the last part of the book, I knew I'd eventually finish the trilogy. I gave this book four out of five stars.

When I heard Catalyst, the final book was coming out this year, I knew I needed to catch up. I immediately went to my local library and borrowed Vortex, the second in the series. Middle books are hard because most series stagnate in the middle, just piddling away time until the last book. That was certainly not the case for Vortex.

Vortex (Insignia, #2)Vortex by SJ Kincaid takes place after Tom has come out victorious in ways that I wasn't happy with (at least how internally he reacts to his own decisions, which was not at all), but I realize this was very deliberate by Kincaid. We get reintroduced to the Scooby gang. We also learn more about Tom's relationship with his father, which is difficult and complex at best. At first, I was worried we'd get more of the same, but it's clear in this book that everything changes. Tom's downward spiral continues in this book, where he pretty much ostracizes everyone that could make him successful and famous. While no one could doubt he is talented and intelligent, he also comes off as bratty and ungrateful and too proud. The Tom in this book reminds me of 5th book Harry Potter. But each of the characters diverges from their Harry Potter comparisons, and this book with a few twists and some great character development becomes so much more.

Everything is so much more polished in this book. I love the lingo that Kincaid uses-- I felt like I was truly in this world. Great world building, and the pacing was terrific. Kincaid takes a huge risk in alienating her readers towards Tom. But even though I wanted to shake Tom at times, I kind of got where he was at, and I was willing to follow him through his adventure to see what would happen. There were a few major twists in this book that while I was suspicious they would happen, I was okay with sensing them before they happened because it took the plot in a direction that seemed the only right way to go. I can't reveal my favorite character because I think it would be somewhat of a spoiler-- but let's just say I had my suspicions that a certain character that Tom thought of in a one dimensional way was much much more than that. And how happy I was to be proven right. Not to mention Medusa-- Tom and Medusa's relationship gets more and more complex, and at this time, I was with Tom enough in this book to get where he took things. He's so much a clueless boy in some ways, which I loved, because I thought his fumbling ways were well done, and while the end was rather heartbreaking, I felt like it was the right ending. I felt this book took the trilogy in its own direction, and really impressed me with how SJ Kincaid grew as a writer since Insignia. I gave this book 5 out of 5 stars.

I was thankful I had CATALYST in my hands so I could start reading it right away. Catalyst takes place right after the events of VORTEX. All of his relationships are in jeopardy, and he pretty much put a sign on his head for Vengerov to come kill him. Things take a dark turn, which was another risky move by Kincaid, but once again, she totally pulls it off as what happens to Tom is so important for his development as a character as well as how the rest of the story plays out. I don't want to say much more, but there were several twists that completely surprised me (and were deployed perfectly at the right time), and from the first few pages, the story doesn't lose its lightning pace until the very end.
Catalyst (Insignia, #3)
I was so unbelievably blown away with this book. And I don't impress easily. The world building as usual is incredible, which is totally hard to do in a sci fi novel, and the character arcs and development finally finish in this installment. Everything is resolved one way or another, and I think it's in a very satisfactory and perfect way. While it is the darkest of the three books, we've been heading this way for a long time, and it's the only way the story could go. I love how Kincaid barrels ahead, willing to take risks, and then executes them in a way that knocked my socks off. I went from thinking Kincaid was a talented writer with a lot of potential to now completely convinced she can do anything she sets her mind to. She's arrived.

Overall, one of the best if not BEST ending to a trilogy I've ever read, and you'll want to read all three of these books back to back. I knew after reading this book I needed to have the entire set on my shelf. 

And NOW... enter to win a copy of CATALYST!!! SJ Kincaid has been so generous to offer up two copies of Catalyst for 2 lucky winners in either the US or UK! It's not often we get UK giveaways, so everyone in the UK who is a YA lover should get on this giveaway! Make sure to turn in tomorrow for the awesome interview with SJ and for more entries into the giveaway!

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