BY ARTHUR MCCULLOCH

Author: Catherine Fisher

Dial Books, 2010

Filed Under: Young Adult, Fantasy, Sci-Fi.

Incarceron is a wonderfully imaginative fantasy novel. Normally I don’t go for fantasy blended with science fiction, but Fisher’s novel incorporates the science fiction element seamlessly into the fantasy theme.

Incarceron is the name for a prison developed by a highly advanced society, a place for the criminals and unwanted that had survived an era vaguely referred to as the Years of Rage. The history and technology behind the creation of Incarceron remains a mystery that is slowly, and satisfyingly, unraveled over the course of the novel. Designed with benevolent intentions, the prisoners were to be transported to a place where they could live out normal lives in a near utopian world. Everyone on the Outside believes this to be true. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The world of Incarceron is a post-apocalyptic hell. The technology used to create the prison was so advanced that the prison itself became sentient. Once sentient, Incarceron became cruel and evil. The prison is like a God, both creator and destroyer of life, and ever-present and ever watchful. It is a vast fortress where the very structure and environment of the prison can be altered at will; and punishment is always looming.

The novel opens within Incarceron, where we encounter Finn, a member of one of the brutal tribes trying to eek out a life in the prison. Everyone in the prison knows that nothing enters and nothing leaves Incarceron. It is a self-contained, self-sustaining, and inescapable prison. Finn isn’t so sure. He has what he believes to be memories of life on the Outside world.  He also suffers from periodic seizures that are accompanied by visions, visions similar to those of a legendary prophet, Sapphique, who is rumored to be the only person ever to escape the “limitless reaches” and “infinite realities” of the prison. When he stumbles upon a device that may provide a means of escape, a mysterious key, his need to escape is galvanized. Finn and his small band of companions join him on his quest for freedom.

Finn is a very interesting character. He is as much an anti-hero as a hero. Life in Incarceron has made him hard and somewhat callous. His need to survive sometimes outweighs his damaged sense of morality, and his allegiance to his troubled and opportunistic blood-brother, Keiro, often has the reader wondering if Finn will fall victim to the anti-hero fate of self-destruction rather than the redemptive role of the hero. Fisher does an excellent job of manipulating the tension between Finn’s conflicting drives and effectively conveys this uncertainty and suspense to the reader.

Incarceron is told from two alternating perspectives: Finn’s story within the prison and one from the Outside. Claudia is the protagonist of the second story arc. She is as much a prisoner as Finn. Trapped on the verge of a pre-arranged marriage, she finds herself about to marry the insipid, cruel son of the Queen. Not only are Claudia’s circumstances a prison of sort; the very world on the Outside is a self-imposed prison. Brought to the brink of annihilation, the society of the Outside abandons their technological advances and chooses to artificially recreate life in the era of the Victorian age. Life is to be frozen in history with no promise of advancement. Laws are in place to ensure that everything, including behavior, is represented in Period and according to Protocol.

Fisher’s novel is exciting and the pacing is swift. The tension escalates as the two characters are increasingly drawn to each other. The threat of being caught and/or pursued propels the characters through the story. The prose is excellent. Her vocabulary is appropriate for the young adult reader, but not without its challenges. As a parent, I would be pleased to know that most young readers would find themselves reaching for a dictionary at various times throughout the book. Her sense of detail and her word choice really brings the setting and environments of the Outside world to life.

Incarceron is wonderfully bizarre, and I predominantly appreciated the strangeness and uniqueness of the world. But contrary to the  setting and description at work on the Outside world, the descriptions of setting and place within Incarceron are somewhat confusing and muddled at times. Most of these confusing moments can be shrugged aside because they never really interfere with the overall plot and/or action of the scenes, but I do feel that the novel could have benefited from more spatial and environmental clarity. However, my only real disappointment with Incarceron concerns the resolution. The ending raises more questions about Incarceron and the Outside than it answers. Up to this point, the novel was one that might have stood alone on its own merit and I was excited by this prospect because it seems so few fantasy novels can. Too often the stories rely on the nature of the fantasy “series” rather than the “novel.”

Overall, this was a wonderful and original novel and, reservations of form aside, I look forward to reading Sapphique, book two, due out in December.

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