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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