INCARCERON by Catherine Fisher

incarceronIncarceron–a futuristic prison, sealed from view, where the descendants of the original prisoners live in a dark world torn by rivalry and savagery. It is a terrifying mix of high technology–a living building which pervades the novel as an ever-watchful, ever-vengeful character, and a typical medieval torture chamber–chains, great halls, dungeons. A young prisoner, Finn, has hauntings of an earlier life, and cannot believe he was born here and has always been here.

In the outer world, Claudia, daughter of the Warden of Incarceron, is trapped in her own form of prison–a futuristic world constructed beautifully to look like a past era, an imminent marriage she dreads. She knows nothing of Incarceron, except that it exists. But there comes a moment when Finn, inside Incarceron, and Claudia, outside, simultaneously find a device–a crystal Key, through which they can talk to each other. And so the plan for Finn’s escape is born…  (Add to Goodreads)

Review

Incarceron is one of those books you stumble upon, then find yourself forever wondering how you found it. Seriously, there’s nothing out there quite like it–it’s equal parts science and magic, prison break and royal court drama.

Finn is the first protagonist we meet. He’s a member of a criminal gang, born into the sprawling, sentient prison Incarceron–or maybe not. His first memory is of waking up in a cell in the prison a few years ago. Before that, he has nothing. Everyone around him insists that he’s just another cellborn, made by the prison out of recycled organic components–nothing goes to waste in the prison. Everyone also insists that Incarceron is all there is–that there’s no Outside.

Finn isn’t sold on either point.

He’s slowly assimilated to life in Incarceron–now he’s a member of the Comitatus, one of the most feared, hated criminal gangs around. Like everyone else, he’s found an oathbrother, Keiro: someone who’s sworn to watch his back, fight alongside him, and avenge him, if it ever comes down to that. Finn and Keiro have even carved out a good reputation for themselves within the gang.

But even if Finn’s grudgingly respected, he isn’t accepted–he’s not quite like the others, and everyone knows it. Sometimes Finn has fits: seizures, black-outs, disjointed visions that seem to come from another time.

Another world.

So when Finn finds a Key and comes into contact with a girl named Claudia–a girl who claims to live Outside–he and Keiro are determined to make their escape.

Then there’s Claudia. She’s the daughter of the Warden of Incarceron–a place that everybody knows of, but nobody but the really knows about. The Warden’s a cold, hard guy, endlessly calculating, and he’s raised Claudia to be the same way. He wants her to be a strong future queen of their kingdom, and he’s arranged her marriage to the kingdom’s insanely obnoxious prince, Caspar.

Claudia was originally betrothed to Caspar’s older halfbrother, who supposedly died under mysterious circumstances.

But when she steals a Key from her dad’s office and comes into contact with a prisoner named Finn, she starts to wonder if maybe she’s found the long-lost prince. Even if he doesn’t turn out to be the real thing, Claudia thinks she’ll be able to turn Finn into a convincing replacement–and that would be enough to get her out of her arranged marriage to Caspar.

So she decides to bust Finn and his friends out.

At first, Claudia’s storyline kind of bored me. It provides some interesting insight–for example, Incarceron was created as an experiment, and it was originally supposed to be a closed-off utopia–but not a ton of plot. She squares off against her dad in somewhat petty mind games, schemes against him with the help of her tutor, and complains a lot about having to marry Caspar. But once her story gets going, it gets good–murder plots, secret factions at war within the royal court, and an evil queen spice up Claudia’s life a little.

I still prefer Finn’s end of the story, though. It’s spiked with action at just about every turn, and it’s got the insanely creative world-building behind Incarceron to support it. Yeah, this prison has cells and dungeons, but it also has everything else–whole villages, human-sized cages suspended from ceilings, wings claimed by gangs. There’s even a forest made of metal trees. Every morning, Incarceron turns its lights on, and at night, it shuts them off. But sometimes, when its prisoners irritate it or it just gets bored, the prison will shut down sections of itself–releasing poisonous gases, collapsing entire wings, you name it. And at every turn, the prison is watching.

Settings aside, I think this book also excels at complex, interesting secondary characters. Finn and Claudia were okay, but I found Keiro and the Warden more compelling–an in a way, they’re complete opposites. Keiro’s wild and stubborn and seemingly arrogant, and nobody but Finn trusts his loyalty. The Warden, on the other hand, is careful and precise and controlled, and even if he’s cold toward his daughter, nobody can argue that he doesn’t have her best interests at heart. But both Keiro and the Warden calculating, somewhat ruthless, and hard to read–there’s no obvious hero or villain material here. They’re also both harboring huge secrets, which is always fun.

Considering everything Incarceron has going on, I honestly feel like it’s got something for everyone. 5/5 stars, and I definitely recommend it.

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ELEANOR & PARK by Rainbow Rowell

eleanor & parkTwo misfits.

One extraordinary love.

Eleanor… Red hair, wrong clothes. Standing behind him until he turns his head. Lying beside him until he wakes up. Making everyone else seem drabber and flatter and never good enough…Eleanor.

Park… He knows she’ll love a song before he plays it for her. He laughs at her jokes before she ever gets to the punch line. There’s a place on his chest, just below his throat, that makes her want to keep her promises…Park.

Set over the course of one school year, this is the story of two star-crossed sixteen-year-olds–smart enough to know that true love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try. (Add to Goodreads)

Review

This is actually the first time I’ve read the blurb for Eleanor & Park–and looking back, I figure that’s a good thing. A teacher sent the book home with my sister over Thanksgiving break, and I’d heard good things about it.

At first, I didn’t plan on reading the whole thing. I was curious about all the hype, but I’m kind of an anti-fan of romances, so I just wanted to duck my head in and then back away again. But I loved the voice–it’s 3rd person, but still manages to pull off a casual, conversational style that usually only comes with 1st person–enough to keep reading.

Then I came to an exchange between Eleanor and her English teacher, who wants to know why she doesn’t seem invested in Romeo and Juliet. Said English teacher insists that the whole thing is sad–you know, a tragedy–and Eleanor maintains that it isn’t:

“But [Shakespeare]’s so obviously making fun of them…. It was ‘Oh my God, he’s so cute’ at first sight. If Shakespeare wanted you to believe they were in love, he wouldn’t tell you in almost the very first scene that Romeo was hung up on Rosaline…. It’s Shakespeare making fun of love.”

Suddenly, I felt much more optimistic about my odds of liking this book.

And honestly, even though it’s a romance, some of it worked for me–because you know from page one that it’s an ill-fated romance. In a way, it’s a 1986 version of (500) Days of Summer, just not quite as bitter, with the quirky adult leads swapped out for quirky, loser teenagers. Heck–now that I think about it, both couples even like The Smiths.

the smiths

That leads me to another fun aspect of the book–all the pop culture references. Really, besides the fact that there are no cell phones and gas is cheap, it’s easy to read this and forget that it’s set in the 80s–except for the music. And it isn’t just name-dropped: in Eleanor & Park, music is important enough that it feels like a natural extension of the story, like a character or its own setting. Music isn’t just a way to pass the time–in a way, it’s a lifeline for the two leads, in two different but related ways, and it influences who they are and who they want to be.

I think the dual narration works well, too. Sometimes the POV switches after a complete chapter, and sometimes it jumps back and forth several times within the same chapter. The POV is always clearly labeled, so it doesn’t get confusing, and I liked that it wasn’t restrained to following a narrator for a set amount of time.

More than the relationship between the two leads, though, I enjoyed Park’s relationship with his family. He has a much more stable home life than Eleanor–which, granted, isn’t saying much. His parents met when Park’s Irish American veteran dad was serving overseas and met Park’s Korean mom, and Park’s identity is very much tied up in those two different cultures: how they blend, how they clash. He also takes after his mom in a lot of ways, while his giant younger brother takes after their dad, so there’s plenty of room for family drama. I would’ve liked to see Park’s dynamic with his brother get explored a little more, but his relationships with both parents feel real and fleshed out. At the end of the day, they’re also always there for Park, which is a fresh change from the absentee parenting abounding in YA.

The story hits all sorts of notes, from lighthearted discussions about how many telepaths the X-Men really need to that bittersweet ending promised on page one. It deals with important issues, like Park’s struggles with identity and Eleanor’s messed up, crumbling home life, without getting too bogged down with them. Ultimately, I’m glad I accidentally gave it a chance. 4/5 stars.