Incarceron Review

by Wardog

Wardog is crazy in love.
Wow. God.

When you've become as cynical as I seem to have about the fantasy genre, the pleasures of stumbling across a book that reminds you why you used to love fantasy so much in the first place are inexpressible. The book in question is Incarceron, by Catherine Fisher, a piece of young adult fantasy. And it's awesome. It's everything I think a fantasy novel should be: exciting, scary, thought-provoking, imaginative. And, as a bonus to all that, it's lucidly and even poetically written, well characterised, beautifully paced and so damn good in every conceivable way that it makes me almost want to cry with joy when I remember having read it.

This is all going to go horribly wrong, isn't it? I am scared to love a book this much. It's sure to let me down, as I have been so often let down in the past. We may drift apart, want different things from each other, have affairs with other texts ... sorry, I seem to have some issues going on here. Back to Incarceron.

Incarceron is the prison of the future. A hundred fifty years or so before the book begins, all the criminals, social undesirables, political extremists and nutcases were sealed inside Incarceron, along with seventy learned men (called Sapienti) to guide them towards enlightenment and rehabilitation. Incarceron itself is sentient; it was meant to provide a paradise for those locked inside, except something has gone wrong and it's basically a hell from which nobody can escape. The world outside is also a prison, of sorts. Technology has been rejected, change is condemned and society has regressed to an enforced faux 18th century - everything has to be "in Era". Incaceron is about two prisoners: Finn, on the Inside, is a member of a psychotic gang who has visions of the outside world and, on the Outside, Claudia, the daughter of the Warden of Incarceron, is enmeshed in politics and intrigue, an arranged marriage and an assassination plot.

Look, I can't even begin to express how drop dead awesome Incarceron is. I know it's so traditional as to be tedious to start of with whinge/accolades about the world-building but Fisher handles her deep, complicated and fascinating world with deftness and delicacy and I wish some of the big names in the fantasy genre would learn a thing or two from her. It takes a while to build up an understanding about what is going on and how it came about, but that's part of the pleasure of reading. There are some details you never learn: precisely where you are, for example, whether it's an alternate Earth, some time in our own future or some fantasy world of Fisher's own devising but, the fact is, it doesn't matter. Although this carefully constructed but lightly painted world takes a little while to get used to, it soon feels very familiar indeed, although it never loses its sense of dystopian horror and its capacity to surprise. Horror is probably a bit of a strong word but I found Incarceron genuinely terrifying, not in the sense I'm sure I would have noticed when I was between the ages of 9 and 12 (for whom Incarceron is recommended 0 don't listen, everyone should read it) but because its themes of psychological, moral and literal imprisonment are haunting, and it never pulls its punches, in terms of character, action or the ideas it dares to explore (censorship, authoritarianism, both personal and political, the nature of liberty).

I know it sounds like I've gone crazy but this book is crazy-good. And you may ask yourself how a book so fast-moving, dramatic, tense and rife with exciting incidents can contain such hardcore ideas and, truthfully, I have no fucking idea ... I guess part of the reason it's amazing and why I would very much like to send an parcel of apes, ivory and peacocks to Mrs Fisher's door, along with my heart, soul, and anything else she fancied. One of the techniques used to good effect is the old "fragment of in-world text heading up each chapter" chestnut but Fisher manages to take this over-used and often dull device and make it an interesting and illuminating part of the book. Take, for example:
"We forbid growth and therefore decay. Ambition and therefore despair. Because each is only the warped reflection of the other. Above all, Time is forbidden. From now on nothing will change." KING ENDOR'S DECREE.

Walls have ears.
Doors have eyes.
Trees have voices.
Beasts tell lies.
Beware the rain.
Beware the snow.
Beware the man
You think you know.

Sapphique, by the way, is a legendary figure inside Incarceron: the man who escaped, and whose path Finn and his companions end up re-treading in their own journey to freedom. I love this book so passionately I can't actually bring myself to spoil it, even though I don't believe in spoilers and my reviews are always more discursive than they are reviewish, but the way the legend of Sapphique is explored and revealed,the way the different characters interact with it and the depth it adds to the story, is also utterly marvellous. Read it and weep, JK Rowling, this what a backstory should be.

Speaking of characterisation, Incarceron sports an interesting not entirely sympathetic selection of characters for whom you nevertheless end up rooting. Finn, for example, seems to be cast in the generic hero mould but an action committed in the early part of the book and his inability to face up to it have lasting psychological consequences. Although capable of empathy, nobility and courage and he's also self-deluding and deceptive and perhaps not entirely trustworthy ... like Sapphique, who preceded him. His companions include a rescued slave-girl, a half-mad Sapienti who believes in Finn's visions with all the zealotry of the truly desperate and Keiro, his arrogant, selfish, swaggering oath-brother. Keiro, also, is on paper (and actually in the flesh) horribly unsympathetic, but somehow his flaws and his consistent failure to do anything that isn't self-serving make him seem very human, and his acerbic wit and endless vanity never fail to enliven the narrative. To be honest, if I'd spent my entire life in prison and in a gang led by a complete psychopath I'd probably be Keiro too.

On the outside, there's Claudia whose heroine-like feistiness is moderated by her loneliness, her unenviable position and the twisted, seemingly loveless relationship between herself and her father, the Warden of Incarceron. Although most of the courtiers fall into the expected 'schemer' or 'fool' patterns, there are a few surprises and the Warden himself is simply terrific, just the right mixture of disturbing, ruthless and inscrutable. The shifting of the power-dynamic between him and Claudia is fascinating and horrible in equal measure, and he's just intriguing enough that it's hard to know who you want, or expect, to win:
He said, 'Claudia, a few days ago, you asked me about your mother.'
If he had struck her, she couldn't have been more astonished. Then, instantly, she was on the alert. It was just like him to take the initiative, to turn the game around, to attack. He was a master chess-player at the Court. She was a pawn on his board, a pawn he would make a queen, despite everything.
Outside a soft summer rain was drenching the fields. It smelt sweet and fresh. She said, 'Yes I did.'
He gazed at the countryside, his fingers playing with the black gloves. 'It is a very hard for me to speak about her, but today, on this journey toward everything I have always worked for, perhaps the time has come.'
Claudia bit her lip.
All she felt was fear. And for a moment, just a fragment of time, something she had never felt before. She felt sorry for him.

And, finally, there's Incarceron itself. People always speak in hushed and reverent tones of books in which a place takes on elements of character. I'm thinking of New Crobuzon, here: but whereas Mieville takes about a thousand pages and a positively epic quantity of paragraphs and adjectives to bring his city to painstaking life, it takes Fisher less than half of that to create Incarceron. Of course, Incarceron does occasionally speak, which you might claim makes it a whole lot easier, but, even when it is silent, you never forget about the prison and its red, ever-watching eyes. Its presence is oppressive, malignant and mysterious. As with everything else in the novel, you get just enough information to want more, and most of the fragments of knowledge you accrue only contribute to the sense of horror (Incarceron's efficiency, for example, in recycling organic matter means that many of the "cellborn" humans inside are made of dead people). You never learn what went wrong to turn the prison from a heaven to a hell, whether it is the nature of human beings themselves to reject and destroy paradise, whether the prison was incorrectly programmed to begin with, whether it's utterly malevolent or merely mad, or if the answer is some combination of all. And, even so, despite its cruelty and caprice, you still feel a terrible pity for it:
Can you imagine, Sapphique, you the wanderer, the great traveller, can you even dream how it is to live for ever trapped in your own mind, watching only the creatures that inhabit it? They made me powerful and they made me flawed.

Before I conclude this orgiastic review in a tidal wave of gush and glee, I have one teensy-weensy anxiety. Incerceron ends rather abruptly, so abruptly in fact it's almost as if Fisher just stopped writing. Now, it ties up enough of the main plot for what remains to be interesting rather than frustrating. Without going into detail, it ends at the beginning of change, leaving several characters as yet unaffected by the revolution that may or may not be about to occur as a result of the events of the book. Possibly I've just lost all my critical facilities in my adoration for Catherine Fisher but I'm okay with that. I don't mind not knowing precisely what happens next. I don't mind that not everyone is rescued. I don't mind that not everyone who deserves to be overthrown -including Incarceron - is overthrown. Furthermore, I felt enough trust in the main characters to believe that better things could follow, that further rescues, and further change, could likely occur. The fact that these things lay in a hazy, turbulent future struck me as a plausible end for an essentially dystopian novel.

But. Err. There's a sequel.

I'm terrified.

But for the moment, and, actually, even if the sequel sucks like a factory full of dysons, Incarceron stands.

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Comments (go to latest)
Rami at 09:53 on 2009-01-21
That sounds awesome. Seriously awesome. Perhaps it is the very clunkiness of obsession with detailed pixel-by-pixel design of a world that I've become used to (thank you, China Miéville and Robert Jordan) but something that's lightly painted and well-paced and plot-driven sounds absurdly good.
Wardog at 13:34 on 2009-01-26
It's is absolutely made of awesome - you have to read it.
I have nothing to say but: THIS. YES. TIMES A MILLION.

Well, that, and also:

Incarceron is indeed drop-dead awesome, and Kyra: assuming you haven't yet read the sequel, rest assured that Sapphique is every bit as made of awesome as Incarceron.

The two books are extremely closely linked, so much so that I'd consider them as one work that happened to be split in two by the author/publisher: while you could conceivably stop reading after Incarceron, the sequel is equally amazing and continues to explore both worlds in greater detail. It also ties things together in a wonderfully satisfying way: after Incarceron, my main thought was "must read sequel now, must find out what happens next!", while after Sapphique, my main thought was "ahhh, what an excellent ending to a brilliant story!".

Supremely satisfying stuff, and what a find: thanks so much for the review!
Wardog at 13:39 on 2009-11-25
Sorry, I meant to reply to this earlier but it got lost in all the noise about Graceling. I am so glad you enjoyed Incarceron - I know I thought it was fabulous. I have read Sapphique but I was so desperate to find out what happened, I read it too fast to properly appreciate it and I really need to re-read it before I can review it (does that make me sound like a crazy person?)

I really need to get on with The Oracle Quartet as well - even though I know Robinson isn't a big fan. at 03:39 on 2010-02-10
Yes, yes, A THOUSAND TIMES YES. But was I the only one who felt that after SAPPHIQUE there should still be another book in the series? Maybe it's just because to me the entire thing is about the thwarted, barely-spoken love between Jared and Claudia and I felt the need for more closure on that point, but I'm still pining to find out more about how the events of that second book played out!
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 22:23 on 2010-05-06
Well, Kyra, you convinced me to give Incarceron a look (well, you and my undying love of panopticons), and I just finished it this afternoon.

I wasn't as in love with it as you guys were, partly from my relative unfamiliarity with YA books and general and partly from my feeling that the last few chapters felt rushed, but I rather liked it overall. I found the Claudia's world, which I took as a far-future post-resource-collapse world unenthusiastically locked in a sort of permanent Baroque revival, nicely hypocritical and seething. I also rather liked the Incarceron itself, though I kept having problems trying to map it out in my mind.

Incidentally, given the vaguely late-18th century vibe of the society, does anyone have any idea if Incarceron is actually based on some philosophe's forgotten social thought experiment?
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