Incarceron by Catherine Fisher
Incarceron is a vast prison—a varied landscape, created as an experiment in forever removing dangerous criminals from society, but generously placing them in an alternate world that meets all of their needs. Outside of Incarceron, no one knows what happens there. It is considered a sort of paradise. But over a few centuries, resources have become scare, and the inmates fight for basic necessities.
Incarceron can think. It watches its inmates and reacts to their movements. It’s a weird being that is aware of itself, but can never see outside of itself. It cannot meet its own desires, and comes to delight in making sure that no one ever escapes its walls, and that no one is ever let in from the outside. It creates new life by recycling what it has, although, unfortunately, the details of how this happens are glossed over.
As we meet Finn, a member of a band of rogue criminals (the Comitatus), he is risking his life to gain bounty. However, he’s not a typical criminal, but has a searing conscience. He is sure he’s from the Outside, and he has memories of another world which others around him believe are visions. He is marked as special, a starseer. He is seen as the one person who will be able to escape Incarceron, and when he comes in possession of a crystal key (no one has ever seen a key since there is no getting out of the prison), this belief becomes an adventure for Finn and his band of friends.
Meanwhile, on the Outside, Claudia, daughter of the powerful warden of Incarceron, is betrothed to the prince. She was originally betrothed to the true prince, a boy she favored, but he died under mysterious circumstances. The new prince, son of the queen, is neither bright nor kind. (And, yes, you can see just where all this is going.)
Incarceron has been embraced by professional reviewers, and they suggest that fans of Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games trilogy) will like it. That may be true. However, I think Incarceron is much more of a fantasy book than science fiction. The protocol under which the Outsiders live mean that their world appears as a seventeenth century European kingdom. They have futuristic technology, but it’s invisible to them. The stories of the evil queen, of Claudia’s power hungry father who thinks nothing of her unhappiness in his bid for royalty, have a great appeal for fantasy readers.
I had a much tougher time with the book than the pros because the writing drove me a bit nuts. There were too many sentences with unnecessary words—something like “Hump,” he said disgruntledly. (That’s not a direct quote, but so much of the dialogue had that unnecessary sort of tagging.) There was also a lot of nondescriptive description like, ‘He muddied his beautiful boots.’ (How about alligator skin boots? Or lion hide boots? Then we’d know exactly what they are and it would also tell us something about the character of the person wearing them—a little bonus.)
Even though Incarceron was hard for me to get through, why reviewers like it is obvious. The world Fisher creates is deeply imaginative, a real accomplishment. The novel begins with fast action (and good writing, to give credit where credit is due). Had a different editor been on the job, I probably would have enjoyed it. And truth be told, I am not the target audience. Teen readers of fantasy are—and if you are among that group, I think this is one you’ll enjoy. With the bonus that there’s a sequel—Sapphique.
Both are in our library now.