Incarceron by Catherine Fisher


Incarceron Book 1, Dial Books, 2010, 442 pgs.

Incarceron is a labyrinth: a prison so large that most inmates spend their entire lives in only one wing and few believe that a world outside of it even exists. Finn believes, though. In fact, he’s sure he came from Outside, in spite of the scholar Gildas’ doubts and his oath-brother Keiro’s mockery. The earliest memories he has are of waking up, fully grown, in a cell, and he wants to see the stars again. Stealing a key, stamped with the same symbol tattooed on his arm, that allows him to talk to a girl from Outside is the final link in his long-stretching belief. Claudia claims to be the Warden of the prison’s daughter and seems to recognize and want to help Finn. Can she actually enable their escape, though? Incarceron is vast and deadly. It has many secrets and a mind of its own.

Have we talked about how much I love Catherine Fisher? No, I know we haven’t, the blog still having less than ten posts and all; I do though. Even being fairly new to her, I can say she’s one of my favorite authors working in YA today. From what I’ve read of her, I feel like she’s one of the few authors who gives me exactly what I want, almost every time.

Incarceron is no exception here, and neither is its sequel Sapphique. I read both of these books in rapid-fire succession because I was enjoying them so much. In fact, they’re a little mixed up in my mind because of this. I’m going to try to keep them as separate as possible for their individual reviews, but it’s hard to shake the overall feeling I got off of both of them. Spoiler alert: neither of these posts are going to be very critical.

It’s hard to talk about something that’s built so perfectly for you without it just sounding like gushing. Where do you even start? Especially when, from the other Fisher series I’ve read, Incarceron’s strengths are the author’s in general. Random points of narrative building just keep popping into my head with a rush of glee.

I love this world, with its combination of Mad Max apocalypticism and Pride and Prejudice frippery. It’s wonderfully drawn and intriguing as all get out. After about twenty pages I found myself craving a movie version because the visual divide between the world of Incarceron and the world of Outside could be so interesting if done right on film.

I, at the very least, want histories. It’s the sort of fictional world that you just want to step into and explore, to roam around and learn all its secrets. Fisher knows exactly how to feed out small details about its past to keep that urge alive, too. Even within the first novel it’s so richly developed that I could see a large-scale epic in this setting.

I love these characters. All of them, even when they hate each other. It’s here, especially, where Fisher shines.Like the world, the characters are divided into two main bands. Once they all come together they have a great dynamic; it’s a nice combination of the honest affection people have for their allies and the natural conflict that crops up when a group has drastically different formative experiences.

Beyond that, they’re all individually interesting. From dreamer Finn, to jaded survivalist Attia and religious fanatic Gildas, they all have immediately recognizable but well rounded personalities. Fisher seems to like these three in particular, as similar characters also made up the core trio in the other series of hers that I’ve read. I’m glad of it, because both times she writes them beautifully. The violent gang member Keiro, the heiress with something to prove Claudia, and the gentle scholar Jared fill out the rest of the main cast, all as vibrant and dynamic as you could ask for.

The villains are well done, too. Both the Warden and Queen Sia are politically astute, smart, and usually one step ahead; both make good foils to our younger and more reckless band of heroes. And Caspar, the comic-relief bully, is used sparingly enough that he remains entertaining instead of annoying.

I love the mix of myth and technology that seems to be one of the author’s calling cards. This is probably more properly sci-fi than fantasy, but it still feels like an epic. There’s no cold rationalism here. Instead the people who created the technology blend into legends as the science behind it fades, and quasi-religious orders pass down cryptic stories about them. I read a lot of both genres, and I’ve never seen anything quite like it anywhere else.

It’s done immersively, too. You’re never beat over the head with an “it was Earth the whole time” plot twist. Instead it builds slowly until all that faded technology that nobody fully understands becomes just another facet of the world these characters live in. As a reader you get to understand the little touches that the characters don’t, but those touches never feel like they were put there just to be clever. Instead they’re actually built on and developed.

And if the plot is a fairly standard quest, that’s so completely forgivable when it’s played with such interesting characters, in such an interesting way, against such an interesting backdrop. It remains tense and page-turning, regardless, and everything else that’s unique about the novel more than makes up for whatever small weakness is there.

I want to offer some criticism here to balance out the praise, but I did honestly love this book. I’ve asked before if I’ll ever not be lead astray by books the internet is raving about, and this is one of the handful I’ve found that fully deserves its accolades. Everything about this is beautifully developed, interesting, and exciting.

It’s an older book, so I’m sure quite a lot of people reading this have already picked it up, but if not I very much recommend giving it a read. It’s just the right blend of action-packed and thoughtful to feed both your mind and your heart.


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