Author: Catherine Fisher
Genre: Dystopia, Speculative Fiction, Young Adult
Publisher: Dial (US) / Hodder Children’s Books (UK)
Publication Date: January 2010 / May 2007
Hardcover: 448 Pages (US)
Incarceron is a prison so vast that it contains not only cells, but also metal forests, dilapidated cities, and vast wilderness. Finn, a seventeen-year-old prisoner, has no memory of his childhood and is sure that he came from Outside Incarceron. Very few prisoners believe that there is an Outside, however, which makes escape seems impossible.
And then Finn finds a crystal key that allows him to communicate with a girl named Claudia. She claims to live Outside—she is the daughter of the Warden of Incarceron, and doomed to an arranged marriage. Finn is determined to escape the prison and Claudia believes she can help him. But they don’t realize that there is more to Incarceron than meets the eye, and escape will take their greatest courage and cost more than they know. Because Incarceron is alive.
Stand alone or series: Book 1 of the Incarceron Series
How did I get this book: Review Copy from the publisher
Why did I read this book: Incarceron has garnered a lot of buzz online – I’ve been seeing widgets for it all over the place. Not to mention, it’s a dystopian YA novel, about a living prison. How could I resist? I immediately began hounding folks for a review copy.
Incarceron is a vast, encompassing prison. Instead of steel bars and cell blocks, however, Incarceron is a world in itself; it is a metal world where nothing is created nor wasted, where stars and sky are near forgotten fairy tales, where all live in a cutthroat world, fighting for food and survival. Even more than that, Incarceron is alive – it observes everything that goes on within its walls, it’s red seeing eye omnipresent to the mortals within. Incarceron is all they have ever known – although there is a myth about one man, a prophet named Sapphique, that was the only one able to escape to the mysterious outside.
Finn is a child of Incarceron, remembering only when he woke up in a dark, squalid cell two years ago, mad with fear and lost memories. Now seventeen, Finn has been forced by circumstance to join a crew of “Scum” – that is, ruthless thieves and bandits, that call themselves the Comitatus. One day, Finn makes a shocking discovery – a crystal key, whose design matches the tattoo on Finn’s wrist. The key, which Finn and those around him believe could be the way out of Incarceron, also turns out to be a communication device, and Finn finds himself able to speak to a mysterious girl, named Claudia.
On the outside of Incarceron, Claudia is the daughter of the Incarceron’s Warden, and set to marry the prince of the realm. Frustrated with her bleak future and the cutthroat political games in which she finds herself ensnared, Claudia is determined to prove that the monarchy is corrupt, and to find a way to instigate change in the static, innovation-fearing kingdom – and the way she plans to do this, is to discover Incarceron’s secrets. When she finds a crystal key in her father’s study, she finds a link to a world that is nothing like the ideal utopia that Incarceron was supposed to be – and she and Finn must work together to bring him out of Incarceron, and into the “real” world.
And with Incarceron itself watching, waiting, and toying with its inhabitants, Claudia and Finn’s task is no small feat.
Incarceron is an amazing feat of a novel from author Catherine Fisher. The book, actually initially published in the UK back in 2007, is part dystopian critique, part science fiction parable, part fantasy. This is not an easy blend to pull together, but Ms. Fisher does it with aplomb. Her world building in particular is PHENOMENAL. I loved the oddity of advanced technology in a royalty-imposed archaic time period – the monarchs and nobles emulate the late medieval western model of courts, down to the dress, castles and mannerisms. But this is not a medieval society! Claudia’s world has incredibly advanced technology, from “skin wands” to give humans the permanent appearance of youth to programable holograms, to artificial intelligence and reality-shifting tools. Despite this technology, however, those in power have resisted any change, abandoning their advanced tools in order to embrace the ways of old, in an attempt to control the population – which rings as very familiar. There’s also Incarceron itself, which is a whole new world on its own. Initially an experiment to create a perfect world for the unruly masses, of course went wrong. The concept of a utopia that is actually a dystopia isn’t really a new one, but this Ms. Fisher writes it so well, and with such awesome variation within Incarceron itself, of A.I. gone horribly awry, it hardly matters.
In terms of plotting, Incarceron is also surefooted, as it packs in revelation upon revelation, surprises, and twists at an expert pace. I could not put Incarceron down – Ms. Fisher is one hell of a storyteller.
Finally, what is a book without its characters? The cast of this novel is similarly well-rounded, though at first glance, they are very standard, fantasy archetypes. There’s the rebellious, intelligent (and beautiful) future queen; the orphaned boy thief with a heart of gold and a destiny to save the land; the calm, wise teacher; the jealous, handsome, morally-ambiguous best friend; the ragamuffin tag along girl; the zealous, prophecy-driven priest; the power-usurping, beautifully cruel queen; etc. These are very familiar character molds, no doubt about it – but as Incarceron progresses, the characters are shown in different ways. Not one thing is exactly how it seems, and that goes for characters as well. In particular, I loved the character of Claudia’s father – the cold, immutable, powerful Warden of Incarceron, Lord John Arlex. I loved the insights to his character throughout the book, especially in his strained relationship with Claudia’s tutor, Jared, and the Warden’s terrified – yet defiant – daughter, Claudia. (There’s one particular scene near the end of the book between these three characters that is made of mind-blowing awesomeness.)
So far as protagonists go, Claudia is as plucky as they come, but it is Finn that captures hearts with his vision, his trusting friendships, and his courage. The other character I truly enjoyed is the morally ambiguous Keiro – handsome and power-hungry, different characters have different interpretations of Keiro. Finn, as his oath-brother, is tied to Keiro by an unbreakable bond – should one of them die, it is the other’s responsibility to avenge them at any cost. And, as a loyal friend, Finn knows Keiro’s flaws, his hunger for power, his recklessness, but he also believes that underneath it all, Keiro would do anything for Finn. Other characters, however, are not so generous, as Keiro is seen as a rogue, out only to use Finn to get him out of Incarceron, no matter the cost. In any case, Keiro is a character that isn’t easy to peg, and I’m excited to see what happens with him in the next book.
With its breathtaking world-building, admirable characters, and exceptional plotting, Incarceron is a dystopian, sci-fi gem. I loved it, and I cannot wait for the next book in the series, Sapphique!
Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:
Finn had been flung on his face and chained to the stone slabs of the transitway.
His arms, spread wide, were weighted with links so heavy, he could barely drag his wrists off the ground. His ankles were tangled in a slithering mass of metal, bolted through a ring in the pavement. He couldn’t raise his chest to get enough air. He lay exhausted, the stone icy against his cheek.
But the Civicry were coming at last.
He felt them before he heard them; vibrations in the ground, starting tiny and growing until they shivered in his teeth and nerves. Then noises in the darkness, the rumble of migration trucks, the slow hollow clang of wheel rims. Dragging his head around, he shook dirty hair out of his eyes and saw how the parallel grooves in the floor arrowed straight under his body. He was chained directly across the tracks.
Sweat slicked his forehead. Gripping the frosted links with one glove he hauled his chest up and gasped in a breath. The air was acrid and smelled of oil.
It was no use yelling yet. They were too far off and wouldn’t hear him over the clamor of the wheels until they were well into the vast hall. He would have to time it exactly. Too late, and the trucks couldn’t be stopped, and he would be crushed. Desperately, he tried to avoid the other thought. That they might see him and hear him and not even care.
Small, bobbing, handheld lights. Concentrating, he counted nine, eleven, twelve; then counted them again to have a number that was firm, that would stand against the nausea choking his throat.
Nuzzling his face against the torn sleeve for some comfort he thought of Keiro, his grin, the last mocking little slap as he’d checked the lock and stepped back into the dark. He whispered the name, a bitter whisper: “Keiro.”
Vast halls and invisible galleries swallowed it. Fog hung in the metallic air. The trucks clanged and groaned.
He could see people now, trudging. They emerged from the darkness so muffled against the cold, it was hard to tell if they were children or old, bent women. Probably children—the aged, if they kept any, would ride on the trams, with the goods. A black-and-white ragged flag draped the leading truck; he could see its design, a heraldic bird with a silver bolt in its beak.
“Stop!” he called. “Look! Down here!”
The grinding of machinery shuddered the floor. It whined in his bones. He clenched his hands as the sheer weight and impetus of the trucks came home to him, the smell of sweat from the massed ranks of men pushing them, the rattle and slither of piled goods. He waited, forcing his terror down, second by second testing his nerve against death, not breathing, not letting himself break, because he was Finn the Starseer, he could do this. Until from nowhere a sweating panic erupted and he heaved himself up and screamed, “Did you hear me! Stop! Stop!”
They came on.
The noise was unbearable. Now he howled and kicked and struggled, because the terrible momentum of the loaded trucks would slide relentlessly, loom over him, darken him, crush his bones and body in slow inevitable agony.
You can read the full excerpt online HERE.
Additional Thoughts: As I mentioned above, Incarceron was originally published in the UK in 2007. Similarly, the sequel to Incarceron has already been published in the UK, though it makes its way to the US early next year. Here’s the skinny:
Finn has escaped from the terrible living Prison of Incarceron, but its memory torments him, because his brother Keiro is still inside. Outside, Claudia insists he must be king, but Finn doubts even his own identity. Is he the lost prince Giles? Or are his memories no more than another construct of his imprisonment? And can you be free if your friends are still captive? Can you be free if your world is frozen in time? Can you be free if you don’t even know who you are? Inside Incarceron, has the crazy sorcerer Rix really found the Glove of Sapphique, the only man the Prison ever loved. Sapphique, whose image fires Incarceron with the desire to escape its own nature. If Keiro steals the glove, will he bring destruction to the world? Inside. Outside. All seeking freedom. Like Sapphique.
Also, if you haven’t seen it yet, check out the cool book trailer for Incarceron:
Verdict: A truly awesome blend of science fiction and fantasy in a future dystopian setting, Incarceron is a book not to be missed. Easily one of my favorite reads of 2010 thus far, and recommended to all.
Rating: 8 – Excellent
Reading Next: Black Magic Sanction by Kim Harrison