Sapphique by Catherine Fisher



Incarceron Book 2, Firebird Books, 462 pgs.

Having finally accomplished his dream of escaping from Incarceron’s walls to the world outside of the prison, Finn must now contend with the things that his escape means. His having left his friends, Attia and Keiro, behind with no contact and little hope of rescue. His coming to terms with the fact that the world of Outside is nowhere near the peaceful paradise he had imagined it to be. His role as the keystone in a rapidly destabilizing political situation. And, overlaying it all, the fact that his escape from the prison, that escape from the prison is possible at all, has shaken the foundational assumptions of two worlds.

As I said before, neither of these reviews is going to be very critical.

Sapphique actually manages to retain most of Incarceron’s strengths of plotting, worldbuilding, and characterization. I sound more surprised here than I am. Fisher is a good writer, and I trust her skill. Still, considering how much the tone has changed between the two novels, it’s good to see.

And it has changed; specifically Sapphique is much slower, with its attention much more spread out than Incarceron’s was. If it feels a little slower-paced and more meandering than its predecessor, however, the plot is still gripping. There’s more political drama going on in this book than in the first, and with that comes a branching of subplots that feels far different from the singular narrative drive of Incarceron. Fisher writes intrigue as well as she writes action, though, so the difference is not a mark against it. And if the action is what you liked about the series, there’s still plenty of that in the sections set in the prison.

Maybe it’s because we spend so much more time outside of Incarceron in this novel that the setting also somehow seems more slowly paced. Like I said before, Outside is Pride and Prejudice to Incarceron’s Mad Max, and the polite manners make everything about this side of the world seem low-key, even when those polite manners are covering a knife in the back.

I’m fully willing to admit that the world outside is far less interesting to me than the world inside of the prison, but it’s not without its good points. Specifically, for my interests, following the stories of people that actually have some power means that we as readers get access to classified archives, and so get to learn some of that history I was craving. It’s not quite enough to satisfy the nerd urge in me, but, well, that’s always hard to really work into a story. I still find myself wanting some supplement books.

And the characters, of course, remain fun and intriguing and wonderful. I said in the review of the first book that this is where Fisher really shines, and I need to reiterate that here. For characters that already grew so much over the past novel, they continue to change and surprise.

The characterization front is actually one of my favorite parts of Sapphique because Fisher does something very clever with it. While we already had two major subgroups within our core cast of characters, those groups are split and rearranged in the sequel. This doesn’t seem like it should do much, but it’s a good move. The new groupings force both the prison and outside characters to react constantly to new personalities that they’d only had a glancing relationship with before, and those clashes in turn bring out different aspects of their own personalities. It keeps the play between them fresh and helps to grow the characters even beyond the new situations they’re forced into.

The best example of this is probably Finn himself. Inside the prison he’s the peaceable dreamer, and it’s hard to see his violent side when set against the brutal Keiro and the hyper-pragmatic Attia. When put in the company of the polite society characters from Outside, it’s much easier to see how prison life has shaped him.

It’s possible on some level that I like this move largely because it gives me Keiro and Attia angrily road-tripping across Incarceron in search of lore, forced to work together person to person, constantly at each others’ throats but never quite willing to leave the other behind. I think it’s a good one in general, though. Add in a couple of intriguing new characters, and the dynamic has changed more than enough to keep it interesting.

“Changed enough to keep it interesting” is probably my foremost thought on the novel. As I said at the beginning of this review, it keeps Incarceron’s strengths, but it’s happy to shift them into different shapes where necessary. It’s very much the same story, but it’s a different animal in feeling. Isn’t that kind of the ideal for a sequel, though? What you loved before, remade enough not to get bland.

If I have one bit of criticism here, it would be of the ending. At least going off of the two that I’ve read, I think Fisher’s series’ endings have a tendency to be too cerebral for me. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in that they’re usually nice summations that flow well out of the important developments and themes of her novels. They never lack for tension, and they trend towards forgiveness and second chances for anyone who could possibly be offered one.

This one in particular has a nice circular sense of the characters we’ve come to care about stepping into the shoes of the legends that created the situation, to maybe do it right this time. I want to make it clear that there’s a lot of good about her endings to recommend them. For some reason though, they always seem to lack a little of the emotional punch that I want.

I will say that this one worked for me far more than the ending of the Relic Master series did, and that, as important as endings are, the journey through both novels more than makes up for it. Most of what my problem with the ending means is that I’ll always love Incarceron more.

Still, I highly recommend both of these, and indeed any of Fisher’s work. Go pick up a copy of any of her books. You won’t be disappointed.


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