Incarceron, by Catherine Fisher
Publisher: Firebird (February 8, 2011)
Format: Hardcover edition (library binding)
You’re going to need to take a deep breath for this one. It’s a wild and bumpy ride that you won’t soon forget.
Incarceron, a vast and maze-like prison of metal and technology, was created long ago as the ultimate social experiment. Prisoners were placed inside and given all the resources necessary to create a utopian society. It was to be the revolution of the modern prison, giving unsavory characters a chance to start anew in a controlled environment. However over time, the experiment went awry with the prison itself becoming self-aware and controlling and resources dwindling to nothing. As years passed, prisoners grouped into opposing factions but each and every one of them held the same belief: there was no way to escape Incarceron and no one from Outside could ever enter it. Finn, a teenage prisoner, has odd memories of the world outside and when he comes into possession of a crystal key, he becomes convinced that it will open the exit to the prison. He begins a monumental quest to leave his prison home and in his travels, collects a ragtag bunch of prisoners that help him on his way. Simultaneous to Finn’s trek across the maze-like prison, Claudia, the daughter of the Warden of Incarceron, is stagnating in the modern world. Along with the rest of society, she is forced to conform to 18th century standards, playing out a life of two hundred years prior. Even though technology exists and is responsible for things like the consistently favorable weather and the limitless wealth her class has access to, her existence is bound by rigid standards of a different age and she feels trapped, suffocating in the hypocrisy of it all. When she too finds a crystal key and uses it to communicate with Finn in the prison, she discovers that Incarceron is not the utopia it is lauded to be. She slowly comes to believe that Finn is her society’s long lost prince and she is desperate for him to escape the prison in order to overthrow the tyranny around her. As both Claudia and Finn race to find the point of entry and exit into Incarceron, other forces are at work attempting to stop them, one of which is the crafty prison itself which has never lost a prisoner.
Wow. Seriously, wow. Somebody hold me up because coming out of the world that Catherine Fisher created is like being whacked in the face with a crowbar. It hurts and I don’t want it to happen. I read this in a marathon session of 2 days and when Incarceron was over, I lifted my head from the kindle and found myself thinking, where are the aristocrats in 18th century garb? Why is everyone on a cell phone? Why isn’t the sexy yet disconcerting Finn communicating with me via crystal key? People, if there’s one thing you take away from this review, it should be that this reviewer was blown away by this book. All I could say after finishing was, “wow.” Ellen received it multiple times via text obviously. It is by far the most unique, engaging, fascinating, well written YA fiction fantasy novel I have read in a while, if not ever. And you know what makes it so enjoyable and well, awesome? Everything. For real, every detail. It’s all so well thought out and everything has a meaning, a double entendre if you will. I mean, start with Claudia, the Warden’s daughter. Girlfriend is stuck in the past. Literally. She lives in a realm where Protocol is the ruling factor of everyday life and she is forced to take part in this daily farce of pretending to live 200 years ago. Watching her stagnate in a prison of luxury is a far cry different from the horrific scenes we see inside Incarceron. But she’s still stuck in a prison and like Finn, she knows there’s a way out of it. Then you have the prison. It’s lauded as a utopia but we all know that when the prison starts watching people with cameras at night that nothing good can come from it. Incarceron has run out of resources and has started creating people and animals out of organic material and metal. It has trouble feeding its denizens, it is barely capable of generating heat, and is consistently blocking off and recreating portions of its self contained world. It’s amazing that Catherine Fisher uses the very prison as a character. It has its own life, its own desires and dreams, but unlike the humans we encounter, we have no clue what the prison wants because damned if I know how a manmade prison can escape itself. And then there’s the mysterious yet dreamy Finn. He might be cute and resourceful but at his core is a filthy, traiterous thief who will stop at nothing to get what he wants. He is savage and ruthless and incapable of real emotion. But we can’t blame him or find fault with how he is: the prison has made him this way. Growing up in it without parents, without memories of a life before, Finn’s survival is brutal, yes, but completely understandable. Of all the characters, I found him to be the most empathetic as he had experienced a whoooooole lot yet had maintained some semblance of self and didn’t give up on his goals. I don’t know about you, but if I had seen warring bands of grimy prisoners fighting over scraps of food and metal, I would have broken down sobbing and then probably would have been clubbed and eaten. Not so Finn. His strong character is mirrored by Claudia. She might be used to her creature comforts (girlfriend needs her candles to see at night, okay?) but she is strong enough to defy her father, the mores of her world, even her Queen in order to see that the rightful heir to the throne is found and that the injustices of Incarceron are eradicated. There is so much going on in the two worlds Fisher has created, both inside the prison and out. She creates believable and genuinely likeable characters, and unlike other writers, is able to use her characters as means of social commentary. In the end, Incarceron is merely a story of two people attempting to change their circumstances but it does so so smartly that you are just blown away. It mixes elements of myth, religion, ideas about social responsibility and the existence of utopia, with the understanding that there is no right and wrong and that prisons exist whether there are walls to confine someone or not. It’s so worth the read and lucky us, there’s also a sequel!!!
Based on the following criteria:
How much did I like the heroine: 10. Claudia was awesome. This girl defied everything she knew and loved in order to do right by Finn, her world, and the prison. Don’t get me wrong: she had her own interests at heart a lot of the time–arranged marriages tend to force a girl’s hand–but she was such a strong, resourceful woman which is a rarity in this day and age. Even more so when we consider that she was supposed to be living 200+ years ago.
How much did I like the love interest: 10. Finn was kick ass! This kid could do nothing wrong. He battled across a wasteland of a prison, lost some friends along the way, had premonitions of the future, had to choose between himself and a dear friend leaving the prison, and then had to confront an entirely new world once he escaped Incarceron. Yes, he seemed a bit brutal and moody to Claudia but I think he’s allowed a little slack since oh you know, he grew up in a dark prison!
How believable is the plot: 10. Catherine Fisher is the master puppeteer. This was set in the future with a lot of science fiction and fantasy elements but it is so seamlessly and effortlessly written that it reads like a contemporary YA fiction novel. Everyone can relate to Claudia’s feelings of being trapped or Finn’s desire to break free from the crappy lot in life he’s given. Fantasy aside, this is ultimately a coming of age story and one of teens doing great things to benefit the greater good.
How much did I like the writing style/editing/etc: About a bagillion! I’ll give it a 10 since a bagillion has an unlimited number of zeros. This lady is a superb storyteller. How does she keep so many threads separate and distinct? How does she write in the third person and yet have such clear and unique voices for the different characters? The writing was excellent, the pacing also excellent, the editing was wonderful, and it was just supremely enjoyable to read.
How much did I want to keep reading: 10. God! What’s going to happen to Finn Outside? Will he be able to handle it? And what about the friends he had to leave inside Incarceron? Will he go back to save them too? And what about the prison itself? Will it implode after losing a prisoner and reaching a higher level of consciousness? Thank goodness there’s a sequel, Sapphique, otherwise it would feel like the book didn’t tie up any loose ends.
Final Score: 10 / 10. I can’t get over how much I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It is wholly refreshing and unique and I promise you, unless you don’t enjoy reading, you won’t be able to put this down. There’s something for everyone: fight scenes, adventure and travel, a smattering of romance, intrigue, mystery, and techie stuff too. Read it for any of those thing separately but love it for all of them together.
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