In Vortex, Tom Raines is now a Middle Company cadet, having passed his first year as a plebe in the Pentagonal Spire and judged worthy to continue his training as a combatant in the Intrasolar Forces. As his training continues, he learns more about the combatant system: how to be a tactical fighter as well as how the powers-that-be (the corporations) run it all. He also hopes to make amends with Medusa. Amid all of this, he must contend with some old enemies, as well as some new ones, as he gets drawn into some bigger fights that are well over his head.
One of the things that really impresses me about these books is Kincaid's way of writing about the corporation-run world, which is more believable in this installment than the last. It's an easy step for me as a reader to get from the covert power that many companies exercise upon our political process now to the overt power they have in Tom's future world. I wouldn't call this series a dystopia, but it does a much better job than a lot of dystopias do at postulating a believable future world built upon problems in the current one.
And because it's explained through action, not infodumps, it's quite chilling to read about. It's also not done in a heavy-handed way, in a way that makes you feel like you're Learning a Lesson. The issue can be quite complex, but Kincaid writes about it in a way that is accessible and understandable. (For more science fiction that addresses this topic, I'd recommend the excellent tv series Continuum, which is appropriate for teens as well, and even features one rather prominently.) It's also a nice change from a future world that's controlled by an authoritarian government, which is a little tired by now.
Tom is a great character. He's quite smart, but he also misses so many obvious things, making huge mistakes in the process. He's not always nice, either, even to his friends. He lets his emotions get the better of him. He chooses sometimes to exact some petty revenge instead of taking the high road, shooting himself in the foot in the process. It's all very authentic. I feel like I know kids like Tom. I feel like I was him sometimes as a teen.
Vortex tackles a lot of tough issues, but it's also very, very funny. Tom and his friends have great repartee. They prank each other constantly. At one point, another Middle company cadet gives Tom's neural processor a computer virus that makes him see imaginary gnomes everywhere. All Middle company cadets learn how to hook into a system that allows them to communicate to each other via thought, and the results are hilarious, since all thoughts are communicated, not just those they intend to send.
This is a terrific second book in the series, and just a terrific book overall. It's funny, meaningful, exciting, and well-written. I want to push these books (beginning with Insignia) into the hands of anyone who's looking for a good SF read. It's much better than most, with a fully-realized world and a unique concept. Highly recommended.
Review copy provided by the publisher. Vortex is available now.