Incarceron by Catherine Fisher, is a tightly-plotted, intelligent YA novel that hits the upper mid-level of recent YA sci-fi/fantasy, falling a few steps below Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games or Kristin Cashore’s Fire (admittedly a high standard) but several steps above recent offerings like Caragh O’Brien’s Birthmarked or James Dashner’s The Maze Runner.
Incarceron is a prison that originated several centuries ago with higher goals than mere incarceration. Whatever its high-minded intent, however, it has now degenerated into a savage tribal/semi-feudal system, with small tracts of territory controlled by vicious rival bands. Incarceron was long ago sealed to entry or exit, and legend has it that only one person has ever escaped Incarceron: Sapphique, a near (or possibly wholly) mythical man whose stories have grown over time. One reason Incarceron is impossible to leave (beside the fact that nobody knows of any actual doors) is that it is constantly watching its inhabitants, shifting itself physically or changing events.
Inside Incarceron, we’re introduced to Finn, a young prisoner who has no memories beyond the past three years but firmly believes he came from Outside. He and his oathbrother Keiro are members of the Scum, one of the barbaric bands. When a stranger seems to know something about Finn’s past, he, Keiro, and two others decide to leave the Scum and search for the way out of Incarceron.
Meanwhile, outside the prison, we’re focused on Claudia, the warden’s daughter, and her sickly tutor Jared. The society outside of Incarceron is an odd mix of tech and pre-tech due to the Protocols, laws that have kept the society in a mostly 17th century-ish time period, with kings and queens and horses and servants, etc. (Though sometimes the horses are cyber-horses, and the servants cheat by using high-tech washing machines rather than beat clothes on a rock.) Claudia is about to be forced into a marriage with a prince she detests, is trying desperately to learn more about Incarceron, and eventually becomes involved in possibly deadly political intrigue.
Incarceron’s strength is in its plotting, which offers a fast-moving chain of twisting events, some of which the reader will see coming and others which will catch even a good reader by surprise. We move pretty seamlessly between Incarceron and Claudia, and the two differing settings offer up two different sorts of suspense and excitement. With Claudia, we’re very tied into what will happen to her personally. The suspense comes from wondering if she’ll get caught breaking into her father’s study, just how cruel her fiancée really is, and other personal dangers. With Finn, we have more fight and chase scenes, some involving just Finn and his few friends, others involving larger groups. And with both Finn and Claudia, we’re never quite sure whom to trust: both have confidants whose motives or backgrounds we’re unsure about and so we’re always waiting for that treachery shoe to drop.
Each chapter begins with an excerpt from various writings that deepen some of the mystery and intrigue, especially with regard to what Incarceron is and why it was created. And there’s also a nicely unsettling lack of clarity with regard to time. It’s not at all clear until late as to whether events in Incarceron and Outside are happening concurrently, and the little historical asides at the top of each chapter bring that further into question.
One of my favorite aspects of the novel was the parallel between Outside and Incarceron. Both are prisons of a sort, both main characters prisoners, and both groups in each believe the other place to be a paradise. It’s mostly a subtly handled bit of depth, only once or twice becoming overly obvious.
Its plot alone, then, makes Incarceron one of the stronger YA entries of the past year. Where it falls short of the more excellent category is in its characterization and setting. Claudia is sharply depicted and fully fleshed out. Though the spunky girl being forced into marriage is not an original character by any means, Claudia feels original in her portrayal. She could have been stock and isn’t. Finn, unfortunately, doesn’t fare quite so well. For a character who gets a lot of page time, he’s pretty passive, which makes him a bit hard to care much about. He’s actually overshadowed by his traveling companions, all of whom are more interesting: more complex, possibly more treacherous, more active, more mysterious. Claudia’s father is, by his nature, pretty aloof and thus a bit removed from the reader, and her fiancée and his mother the queen are pretty rote in their roles.
The settings are also a bit underdeveloped. It was hard for me to actually visualize Incarceron, save for one wonderfully evocative scene of description, which was so good that I wondered why Fisher didn’t do more of it. Claudia’s society is even less clear. We know the general outlines of each, but I could probably describe both in a paragraph each and you’d know about as much about them as after reading the whole book.
I assume (hope) we’ll learn more about both places in the sequel, Sapphique.
I do recommend reading Incarceron. it ends on a cliffhanger, so you may want to have the sequel in hand.