The only word I can think of to describe Incarceron by Catherine Fisher is weird
Incarceron is a vast prison, sealed away from view. It was supposed to be a utopia, but now the descendants of the original prisoners live in a dark malicious work full of savagery and survival. Incarceron is part high technology and medieval torture chamber. Incarceron is alive and keeps a watchful eye on all its prisoners.
Seventeen year old prisoner, Finn, has no memory of his childhood save visions that haunt him during seizures, still he cannot shake the feeling that he was not born in the prison as everyone assumes. Outside of Incarceron lives Claudia, the pampered and feisty daughter of the Warden of Incarceron, who is beginning to feel the walls of her own prison closing around her as her arranged marriage to a prince she doesn’t love grows closer and closer.
Claudia knows nothing of Incarceron, except that it exists and her father keeps watch over it, while Finn only hears myths of a world outside of the prison. This all changes when Finn, inside Incarceron, and Claudia, outside, both discover a mysterious crystal key, which allows them to communicate with each other. Finn is determined to escape the prison and Claudia believes she is the only one who can help him, thus a plot is hatched that will not only save Finn, but also has significant implications for the only world Claudia has ever known.
This book as boggled my mind. I’ve been rolling around words to describe it in my mind for days now. Part fantasy, sci-fi, dystopian, and steam-punk Incarceron was weird. But in a good way. And it was dreamlike; but also slightly nightmarish. I think the fact that I can’t place the book into one nice, easily contained genre is what makes the book weird in that good way. I struggle with saying its a fantasy or dystopian (etc…) because it is so much more than that! Fisher manages to pull the reader inside this garish and fantastical world full of a well rounded group of characters. Both Claudia and Finn are drawn deeper into the web of secrets that surrounds and forces them to discover truths about themselves that both excite and disturb them. You see that they are well developed characters who you love, despite their obvious flaws.
The prison itself terrifies me. A prison that is alive? A prison that watches, provides for and sometimes even protects its inmates, all with a deviousness that makes one not know if they’ll live or die? The idea of the prison being a major character is so interesting and mysterious, but I still have a lot of questions that I’m hoping will be answered in the sequel, Sapphique.
I also was really intrigued by the whole “which prison is worse” themes? On one hand you have Finn who is stuck in this dark and twisted prison that forbids him for embracing who he truly was meant to be, while on the other hand you have Claudia prisoner in a world of pretense and false freedom. Would you rather know you’re a prisoner in a horrible place, or have the appearance of freedom in an otherwise suffocating life?
Catherine Fisher has created very cool stuff for older middle grade readers and up. Lovers of fantasy, dystopian fiction, science fiction and even steam-punk should give this book a try. You may be pleasantly surprised with how good weird can be!