Incarceron by Catherine Fisher
|Formatt:||Hardcover / Paperback / Audio Book / eBook|
|Genre(s):||Fantasy / YA|
|Release Date:||May 3, 2007|
First, a word on the author. Catherine Fisher, unbeknownst to me before spying the glittery cover of Incarceron at my local bookstore, is a veritable factory of fiction. Her writing CV reads like a YA bestsellers list, and the Sunday Times quotes her as ‘A writer of rare talent’. I have to agree.
Incarceron is a jumbled brew of fantasy, sci-fi, and young adult fiction. I found it surprisingly action-packed and imaginative, and thankfully, it has managed to avoid the plethora of pitfalls that seem to pervade YA these days. Anyway, onwards!
Any author worth his or her literary salt will tell you that the opening sentence is the most important. If the aim is to reel you in, then Incarceron drops a net around you and hauls you off into the darkness. Check it out:
“Finn had been flung on his face and chained to the stone slabs of the transitway. His arms, spread wide, were weighted with links so heavy he could barely drag his wrists off the ground. His ankles were tangled in a slithering mass of metal, bolted through a ring in the pavement. He couldn’t raise his chest to get enough air. He lay exhausted, the stone icy against his cheek. But the Civicry were coming at last…”
Fisher throws you straight in at the start. She doesn’t bludgeon the reader with an overbearing and weighty description of the scene and the events, but rather skims over it. This, as we can all see, bites instantly, and I found myself reading on, even if it was just to find out what in the name of hell was going on to this poor Finn chap.
The story starts with this 17-year-old boy Finn, a young chap who finds himself in the darkest and deepest prison known to history. As you can expect, Finn sincerely believes he doesn’t belong in Incarceron, which is hardly surprising judging by its undesirable inhabitants, and is convinced that he came from the Outside. Finn’s main problem, however, is that he has no memories of his past whatsoever. While others may find this a little bit typical and unoriginal, Fisher manages for the most part to keep it fresher than most.
After a series of misadventures and an introduction to several intriguing cohorts, Finn manages to find a mysterious key that allows him to communicate with a girl on the Outside named Claudia, and so he launches a desperate plot to escape, while at the same time unraveling his strange past. Meanwhile Claudia, at first a petulant, and frankly annoying character, is busy attempting to balance her impending arranged marriage to a personality-less prince, and finding a way into the vast prison to help Finn. Thankfully, by the end, she emerges as a strong and surprisingly clever character but we’ll get to that in a bit.
Moving onto the setting then. Fisher has set her novel in a futuristic yet devolved world, where advanced contraband technology rubs shoulders with 18th century themes. I’m not sure as to whether this is a future Earth or a different world altogether, but that lack of knowledge doesn’t distract from the story. The premise of the book is that there exists a prison named Incarceron, a dystopian prison so vast it encompasses cities and forests and valleys and endless corridors. Incarceron is both futuristic and yet medieval, artificial and yet mechanical, intelligent, devious, and not to mention in possession if its own macabre personality.
Incarceron is delightfully juxtaposed to the Outside, and yet at the same time the two settings share subtle similarities. The Outside is a place where time itself has been frozen, where the citizens are blessed by a life free of disease and germs and yet frustrated by an ancient protocol forbidding the use of its advanced technology, effectively stranding the world in the 18th century, rife with political scheming and simmering unrest.
So what did I think of Incarceron as a novel? Overall Fisher’s writing is powerful, direct, and in places wildly descriptive. Like any good fantasy author, she manages to paint vivid pictures in the reader’s mind, and her charged scenes of character dialogue and nonstop action are, for the most, part gripping. The pace borders on the frantic, and yet the slow leak of information and constant intrigue satisfies the more laid-back reader, as do the occasional breaks you get during some of Claudia’s scenes. Some of the turns were numbingly predictable. And although waking up in a cell with no memories and a mysterious tattoo isn’t an original idea whatsoever, Fisher manages to deflect any humdrum aspects of this with other great fantastical injections such as flying ships, living storms, and metal forests, all of which the true fantasy fans will love, and find creatively conceived.
What I liked the most about Incarceron was the dual storyline that continues throughout the novel. While some may be slightly confused by the constant switching, and the occasional lack of information in favour of a descriptive passage, the twin tribulations of Claudia and Finn are engaging and very cleverly linked. The Key device is very shrewd and not overly used, and the other characters are engaging but not overly complicated, so you don’t find yourself entangled in complex back-stories.
I found myself caring more about Finn that I did for Claudia, but I suspect this is due to the fact we share a gender. Claudia was initially shallow and rather “off-the-shelf”, wrapped up in her own little world. Maybe that was the point, because by the end I had softened towards her, and thought she shone through in the frantic finale of the plot.
What I did enjoy specifically about Finn was the way Fisher treated his amnesia. More often than not, memory-less characters like his tend to wander around the plot with a confused and dopy gait, more inconvenienced by their lack of memories than pained by them. If I were to wake up one morning inside a malevolent prison-world, surrounded by criminals and lacking any sort of wherewithal, I would probably immediately vomit, cry, torture someone for answers, and then hide, and not necessarily in that order. Fisher has thankfully done the latter. Every time Finn gets close to grasping one of his lost memories, he has a violent seizure. Great work and refreshing to read.
However, there is a caveat to most this. I found Fisher’s flowery language trying at times, and to this I direct the fans of a darker-edged fiction. While Incarceron is branded as young adult novel, and has won many an award in that area, it is exactly that. It’s a delightful tarry into a slightly softer fantasy/sci-fi world and not recommended for fans of high fantasy or edgier stuff. As a fan of the darkest and hardest fantasy I can get my greedy claws on myself, I didn’t expect to enjoy this book. Incarceron is not groundbreaking or astounding, and occasionally the language is lacking and could have done with a tad more effort, but it has been written by an author well-versed in her genre, and by the end she does not disappoint. I’m looking forward to the next installment, Sapphique, which I’ll buy as soon as my wallet is filled with something other than moths.