Review of Incarceron by Catherine Fisher

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I picked up this book from Fantasycon last year, and finally got around to picking it up this week… Which was when I discovered it was YA.

incarceronImagine a prison so vast that it contains cells and corridors, forests, cities and seas. Imagine a prisoner with no memory, sure he came from Outside – though the prison has been sealed for centuries and only one man has ever escaped. Imagine a girl in a manor house, in a society where time is forbidden, held in a 17th-century world run by computers, doomed to an arranged marriage, tangled in an assassination plot she dreads and desires. One inside, one outside. But both imprisoned. Imagine Incarceron.

That’s the slightly bleak blurb. While this book isn’t a barrel of laughs, it is dialled to YA sensibilities, so although there is plenty of unpleasantness Fisher doesn’t see fit to dwell overmuch on the more violent side of what happens within Incarceron, other than the nastiness that befalls our protagonists and their companions.

As with all dual narratives, Fisher has to balance the unfolding stories of Finn and Claudia. I was interested to learn many other reviewers enjoyed Finn’s journey and his character more than Claudia’s – whereas I found her story more immediately gripping. Which tells me that Fisher did her job. That she is a skilful and technically adept writer is evident right from the first sentence. She manages to pack an enormous amount of backstory and detail about the two very different worlds without silting up the pace – a much harder trick to pull than Fisher makes it look, but crucial when writing a successful dystopian science fiction thriller, like this one.

What Fisher also manages to achieve is the steady pulling together of the two separate strands until they intersect while moving towards the climax. Some of the progression is reasonably predictable – I guessed who Finn was very early on. But I didn’t foresee the Warden’s story arc, or that by the end I would be feeling sorry for him. He is one of an interesting cast of characters who accompany the two protagonists on their journeys. Some, like the Queen, are clear enemies right from the start – but others are far more nuanced and ambivalent. One of the most intriguing relationships is that between Keiro and Finn. Keiro is Finn’s oathbrother – the person who first scooped him up and protected him as the only way to survive in such a hostile environment is to have someone who watches your back. And Keiro is everything Finn is not – strong, fearless and skilled at fighting. But while Finn trusts him, there are big questions over whether he should almost from the start of the book.

Overall, this is a strong, enjoyable YA offering with a different flavour compared to many recent dystopian science fiction novels and I’m going to track down the sequel, Sapphique, in 2015.
8/10

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3 responses »

    • I suppose he is… It hadn’t occurred to me before you mentioned it – but he does spend a lot of time floundering. Not that it grated, because if it had I would have mentioned it. But then Claudia isn’t your typical heroine either. She appears to be very cold and withdrawn and doesn’t care what most people think… Fisher writes interesting characters.

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