Plot Summary (from Amazon): Incarceron is a prison so vast that it contains not only cells and corridors, but metal forests, dilapidated cities, and wilderness. It has been sealed for centuries, and only one man has ever escaped. Finn has always been a prisoner here. Although he has no memory of his childhood, he is sure he came from Outside. His link to the Outside, his chance to break free, is Claudia, the warden’s daughter, herself determined to escape an arranged marriage. They are up against impossible odds, but one thing looms above all: Incarceron itself is alive . . .
In the dystopian future, after years of war, the architects of society built a prison. They had lofty goals: this prison was not only to be the safest for the public, since it allowed no possibility for escape; it was also to be a social experiment that, the wise ones hoped, would allow for the inmates’ redemption. Those on the Outside could rest easy, believing that the volunteer staff of teachers, philosophers, and healers–sealed inside the prison as the inmates were–would, under the oversight of the prison’s own sentient enforcer, bring about the formation of a blissfully utopian, tightly controlled society within its walls.
Except for the fact that that’s not what happened. The prison was designed to be ruthless. It was designed to be efficient. But as a result of its flawed creation, it has become possessive and possibly insane, tortured by the knowledge that one inmate, against seemingly insurmountable obstacles, managed to escape. Incarceron is not about to let that happen again. Especially not now that the keys, long guarded or thought to be lost, have resurfaced.
I respect the hell out of Catherine Fisher for what she has tried to accomplish with this book. A prison that’s alive? And vast and desolate and the physical manifestation of every nightmarish social experiment ever conceived by those who want to be gods? I’m fascinated by this premise, and I thought that Fisher executed it beautifully. The world-building in Incarceron is nearly perfect: mundane questions such as “where does the food that the inmates eat come from, since it’s a sealed prison?” are not only answered, but the answers are almost breathtaking in their brutal simplicity. Fisher has also crafted a similarly stunning Outside world: a repressed, stagnant society with a very thin veneer of Victorian manners masking roiling political intrigue. It’s exactly what I’d expect from an authoritarian regime invested in forced inequality and punishment for any type of independent thought. This very rich setting made it easy for me to become engrossed in the story.
The plot twists in Incarceron kept me on my toes, as well. Some of the other reviews I read took issue with the sheer number of them, and concluded that the book was “gimmicky,” but while I can understand that point of view, I don’t share it. This story has no omniscient narrator, so the plot twists exist because the characters (and the reader along with them) uncover truths as they explore their surroundings and make discoveries. I don’t think there’s any way for a book like this to not have plot twists, considering the ignorance inflicted on the population in this society. When taken with the anachronistic Outside setting and the omnipresent air of menace, the plot becomes organic and believable according to the rules of the story-world.
Fisher’s thematic choices also impressed me. Within this dystopian fantasy realm, she drew from universal motifs, such as self-determination and the ordering of a free society; contemporary thought, including prison reform and cautions against well-intentioned overreach; and history, highlighting the importance of oral traditions and the long-established lessons of totalitarianism. With so much weighty matter behind the text, Incarceron could have been dense, dry, and preachy. However, it is none of these things, and readers have the option to either see this story as (at least in part) a commentary on the timeless struggles of society, or to simply enjoy it for what it is: a grand, sweeping adventure.
My only complaints about Incarceron are more than balanced by everything that the author does well, but I’ll note them here all the same. The beginning of the book was disorienting to me; the shifting points of view and the fast pace made me feel lost, and I needed to re-read some passages until I was satisfied I understood what was going on. This is probably an intentional side effect on the author’s part, because it is effective in conveying a sense of chaos and lawlessness, but those first few pages required effort to get through. Also, can we talk about female protagonists and their motivations? Overall, I like Claudia’s character. She’s a strong broad who pulls no punches. She’s sharp as a tack and forced to live in a society that will oppress her both for being a woman, and also for wanting to learn and explore. So why, yet again, is the “undesirable arranged marriage” the final straw for her, the thing that causes her to rise up and buck the system, not to mention defy her powerful father? Claudia’s story provides the tie-in to the larger story arc about the political unrest in her time period, so there is some logic to this, but it’s a tired device. Can we have some heroines, please, who aren’t motivated by marriage (or the lack thereof) in any way? Finally, this is yet another novel that isn’t finished. It is, of course, the first in a series. And that’s OK, I suppose, but it would be nice to see more books in this genre that are self-contained. Not every series can be The Hunger Games, and I’d like to be able to read this type of subject matter and feel like I’ve accomplished something (other than putting another book on my “to buy” list) at the end of it.
The Verdict: A very well-written YA-focused sci-fi/fantasy novel with masterful world-building. Within these pages, mystery, adventure, horror, a hero’s quest, and social commentary explosively coexist, creating a story that burrows into a reader’s brain. I found myself thinking about this book after I had finished it, and even though I’m not thrilled about reading yet another series, I do want to know what happens next. I give Incarceron four and a half out of five hidden crystal keys.