Incarceron -- a futuristic prison, sealed from view, where the descendants of the original prisoners live in a dark world torn by rivalry and savagery. It is a terrifying mix of high technology -- a living building which pervades the novel as an ever-watchful, ever-vengeful character, and a typical medieval torture chamber -- chains, great halls, dungeons. A young prisoner, Finn, has haunting visions of an earlier life, and cannot believe he was born here and has always been here. In the outer world, Claudia, daughter of the Warden of Incarceron, is trapped in her own form of prison -- a futuristic world constructed beautifully to look like a past era, an imminent marriage she dreads. She knows nothing of Incarceron, except that it exists. But there comes a moment when Finn, inside Incarceron, and Claudia, outside, simultaneously find a device -- a crystal key, through which they can talk to each other. And so the plan for Finn's escape is born ...
Incarceron is a queer mixture of dystopian and fantastical imaginings, a historical setting and futuristic technology. It's two books in one, and several different genres in one. Incarceron is a very complex, intricately plotted out book that will appeal to both boys and girls eager for a few hours of reading escape.
The novel opens with Finn, one of many captives of the vast and mysterious prison called Incarceron. In this strange land, there is no sunlight, conditions are similar to dark age poverty, and crime runs rampant. Predictably so, since this is a place full of criminals and bands of warriors. It's a prison fashioned for the most pitiable and corrupt of the human race.
There are two rules: no one is let out, and no one comes in. Except Finn--who can't remember anything before three years ago--and who believes he's from the Outside even though no one else believes him. The story really starts when Finn, his mentor Gildas, his arrogant and vain oath-brother Keiro, and devoted dog-girl Attia set off in a quest to reach Outside. Finn's found a crystal key, and he's determined to Escape, see the stars, and find out who he really is.
The novel is told in 3rd person, and periodically alternates to focus on Claudia, the daughter of the Warden of Incarceron. She's ridiculously pampered but fears her grim and powerful father, who's forcing Claudia into a betrothal that she doesn't want. But the key that she steals from her father's study might just be her way out of it.
A key that looks a lot like Finn's.
I feel equal turns exhilarated and frustrated by Incarceron. It's exactly the sort of adventurous sci-fi/fantasy that I'm craving more of in YA, and is told in a very British, middle grade-like tone.
The imagination of Fisher is outstanding. Actually, scratch that: it's not really the originality of her individual concepts that's striking. It's the way she puts different elements of myths and fantasy to new use. And it's a very strange, awesome dystopian world that Incarceron takes place in. Claudia's world is highly reminiscent of the 18th century--the outrageous dresses, the estates, and the inequality between rich and poor. For a world that should be highly futuristic-- there are hints of very advanced technology--it's surprisingly familiar. The people of the Outside have sealed themselves in a strict time period, doing away with any progress for the sake of peace.
The inside of Incarceron itself is vague. It's one of the things I liked least about this book. Fisher has brief flashes of description where I was able to visualize the world in detail, but for the most part, the setting was sparse in details. And in this sort of book--where plot and setting are everything--it's not a fault that a reader can easily brush by. I also had a problem with the characterization--the characters were distant, hastily-formed, and I couldn't relate to any of them. I didn't dislike them or anything-- I just felt like an observer while I watched them get into one perilous situation after the next. I really couldn't bring myself to deeply care for their well-being. Basically, while Finn and his companions were about to be destroyed I would think, "Hmm, this is fascinating,"not, "OMG NOESS SAVE YOURSELF AHH."
Still, Incarceron is a bit stunning in it's scope. There are many elements of Greek mythology woven in, and world-building comes off as both cliche and brilliant. A terrifying beast made of recycled parts that resides in the depths of a cave resembles a dragon, the three blind women who spin and pass judgment are remarkably similar to the three Fates, golden apples grow on metallic trees, and Incarceron's many pathways, terrors, and wonders are vaguely reminiscent of the labyrinth from Theseus. On the other hand, Claudia's world has a whole set of over-used characters and situations: a foolish prince, a power-hungry Queen, a plot to overthrow the monarchy, wise tutors, an arranged (unwanted) marriage, and of course--the ever-present* missing heir to the kingdom. Still, as overused as these elements are, they work. Work well, actually.
It kept me reading, after all. Engrossed.
And this book kept me guessing. I love books with a tangled mess of a plot and huge--or several huge--secrets that will explain every mystery that unfolds throughout. I have such great fun coming up with theories while reading. I guessed some of Fisher's revelations--the ones about Finn and Claudia are particularly cliche. Other revelations were more unexpected, but explained in what seemed like a few sparse sentences or two at the end, so they seemed hardly believable. In fact, the ending was rushed and a bit sloppy. But it did leave room for a sequel--and considering the flawed but exciting ride that Incarceron took me on--I want the second book, Sapphique, in my hands this very second.
So, I have mixed feelings about Incarceron. However, it manages to hold together as fantastical romp that was very fun to read. It's a definite must-read for those of you who enjoyed Garth Nix's Key to the Kingdom series. I can also see fans who are hankering for Mockingjay's release enjoying this book during the wait.**
My rating: I give it a 7.75/10. It really depends how much you love fantasy/dystopia/adventure. If you can't ever get enough, definitely pick this one up. If you're more meh on those genres, pass on it.
* I mean, why do so many fantasy books have to either involve missing heirs to the kingdom or center around royal/noble MC's? Even MC's that start off as slaves or nobodys manage to (impossibly) claw their way up. Le sigh.
** I think we should sign petitions ordering them to release Mockingjay NOW. Who's with me? Haha, jk :p
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