Review: Incarceron by Catherine Fisher

Catherine Fisher

Hodder Children's Books (2007)
458 pages
Fantasy / Adventure / YA

Purchase it from Amazon here

Incarceron is filled with wonderful ideas.  There are the classics such as a missing prince, an evil step mother, and arranged royal marriage.  Then there are the new ones such as a sentient prison housing thousands of inmates long forgotten and a world in which time has “stopped”, requiring everyone to live a period lifestyle from a simpler time.  Fisher combines all these elements into a book that flew by, leaving me riveted from page one even though I picked out most of the plot twists within the first 50 pages.

The story is told through two separate storylines.  One follows Claudia, the privileged teenaged daughter of the Warden of Incarceron, betrothed to the prince of her kingdom as she and her tutor attempt to uncover the mysteries of the prison.  The other plot involves a young prisoner named Finn, who was seemingly born of the prison with no name or family.  Despite this, he has bizarre “memories” of the outside world, only seen during seizures usually caused by stressful situations.  An old man sees him as a prophet and decides Finn will show him the way out of Incarceron as the folk hero Sapphique once did before.

I could go on about Claudia and Finn, but neither of them is the most interesting character in this book.  That reward would go to the prison itself.  Built over a hundred years ago to house everyone deemed evil to society, the outside world was fed that the lie that it would be a utopian experiment.  Isolated within the walls of the prison with only the guidance of a group of Sapients (an order of men who are a cross between monks and professors) , these criminal and unwanted members of society were somehow supposed to come together in the formation of a peaceful world.  I never quite understood the reasoning behind this assumption.  Criminals + more criminals + a dark, creepy, thinking prison = happy rainbow land? 

Anyway, the prison is a self-contained society.  It creates everything and nothing goes to waste, which is how you end up with hybrid animals (and humans) that are part flesh, part mech.  And how the dead quietly disappear when no one is looking.  Rooms disappear and halls cave in whenever the prison decides, and everywhere you look, there are tiny red lights – the eyes of the prison, always watching.  Occasionally the prisoners think they hear a bitter laugh as the walls of their homes collapse around them or violent weather suddenly stirs up.  There are miles of forest filled with metal trees with razor-edged leaves of silver and copper.  The prison is seemingly endless, always changing and manipulating the subjects within it, yet somehow often beautiful in its dark descriptions.

Despite all the wonderful detail, I wanted more.  How did the prison continue to be populated?  Did Incarceron really just keep creating more people out of bits and bobs or did the human population procreate as normal?  How many people from the outside world conveniently went missing, waking up in a dank cell with no memory of where they came from?  How many prisons like Incarceron are there?  Who came up with the idea?  How was the prison born?  Is it sentient machine or some sort of crazy human consciousness that was transferred during its formation?  So. Many. Questions.

Then you have the outside world, a place where some brilliant politician decided we should all turn back the clocks and stop in a place they deemed a “better time”, which is why Claudia’s world seems to be stuck in the 18th century.  Despite the fact that there’s enough technology to create a sentient prison, not to mention holograms, bug detectors, and weather controls, the inhabitants are forced to pretend to live in a fiefdom, where scientific advancement is forbidden due to Protocol and violators can be forcefully punished.  It’s like an entire life of make-believe where everyone is forced to play along, even those who become ill with deadly diseases easily treated before the Protocol was put into place.  Which just leaves me as a reader wondering, why?  What brought this on?  While quotes at the beginning of each chapter vaguely address that it was for the good of everyone, there’s no background.  What happened to cause the world to transform as it has?

With two worlds so expertly and vividly created, the characters inhabiting them could be discussing the philosophy of anteaters and I would probably still eat it up.  Thankfully Fisher also creates characters that seem real within the world in which they exist.  Claudia is a petulant teenage girl, willful and headstrong, who is ignored by her important father and wants to discover the secrets locked up in his study.  With the help of her tutor, the Sapient Jared, she breaks in and finds a desk within which there is an intricate key.  Of course being a petulant and willful girl, she steals it.

On the other side of the story, we have Finn, who is resilient and brave, willing to risk his life for the sake of the gang he runs with.  At the same time, he has a spark of compassion somewhere deep inside that the prison hasn’t smothered.  He does not belong.  Referred to as the Starseer, many of the inhabitants of Incarceron believe him to be somewhat of a prophet that might be able to find the way out.  Following the path laid out by the stories told of a Sapient named Sapphique – half folk hero, half prophet – Finn and a few friends attempt to leave the prison with nothing but an intricate key taken during a ransom/hostage exchange.

What’s with me and stories about keys?

Finn’s story, being locked up in this crazy living prison, is the most interesting.  I could barely care about Claudia’s impending nuptials to a bratty frat boy.  Her purpose, in my mind, was only to act as a guide for Finn and his friends as they risked their lives following Finn’s visions.  Exciting exploits occur with Finn; Claudia complains and plays a game of “who blinks first?” with her father, a cold and calculating man.  She was a placeholder, a spot to breathe in before you got back to Finn and friends running like mad for their lives.

I know this is the first in a series, but the ending left me fulfilled.  Without giving away spoilers, the sudden change in events, the movement of characters from one side of the board to the next, didn’t really intrigue me enough to rush out for the next book.  I imagine I will eventually get to it, but the objective of the story was fulfilled, problem solved, everyone happy except for the characters who were jerks anyway.  Good guys 1, annoying sort of bad guys 0.

I might have also heard Incarceron’s voice as Glados from the Portal games, which is an automatic +10.



Worlds to wrap yourself in for hours, everything revolves around Finn so Claudia is a bit extraneous, nothing too unresolved to push me into the sequel