Book Review: Incarceron by Catherine Fisher

Imagine a prison that encompasses a whole world of fantastical people and creatures inside its walls: cities, metal forests, deep caves, and sanctuaries in the sky. That is Incarceron. Built to be the perfect prison after a time of unrest in the greater world around it, Incarceron was also meant to be a utopian place where the first prisoners could rehabilitate, and those who were born there afterward could live in peace. Once it was created the doors were sealed completely; no one was able to either arrive or escape.

Yet, Finn the Starseer believes he was not born inside. He has visions, possibly vague memories of birthday cakes and lakes and starry skies. He’s also heard the legend of Sapphique, a wise man from long ago whom the stories say found a way out. Now Finn has found a crystal key with the emblem of a crowned eagle on it, an eagle that matches the tattoo on his wrist. He’s sure the key can lead him out of Incarceron and help him find the truth about his past. A group of friends embarks along with him on the quest, desperate to also find a way out of the prison that has become more of a Hell than a Utopia.

Claudia is the Warden of Incarceron’s daughter. Engaged to the crown prince, she has been raised to be part of the court since the time she was born. But she wants no part of the intrigue and plots common at court. As her wedding approaches, she becomes desperate to find a way out of her prescribed life. When she discovers her father’s crystal key, she finds herself able to communicate with Finn. Together they try to solve the mystery of Finn’s identity and get him out of prison, which may also help Claudia change her fate.

Incarceron is Catherine Fisher’s highly imaginative fantasy novel about life in a future time where the technology exists to create a prison of Incarceron’s magnitude. Richly imagined details bring the grimy, bleak reality of prison to life.

A quote at the beginning helps to define reality for many of the characters: “Only the man who has known freedom can define his prison.” Everyone is seeking freedom of some kind, but they don’t always know what getting it will mean, and how freedom will change their lives. I was totally drawn into the dark dangers of the prison world. I could feel the eye of Incarceron as it searched its depths, always watching those who lived within. Claudia also faces dangers, but hers are more camouflaged, and less easy to identify.

I found myself wanting to race through the book to find out what happens at the end, and yet longing to linger over the details and savor this other world so vividly realized. Incarceron provides that kind of delicious balance that will have you impatiently waiting for the sequel, Sapphique, set to be released at the end of 2010.

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