Incarceron (book one) by Catherine Fisher
[pub. In Great Britian, Hodder Books, 2007]
Dial Books, 2010
(hardback) 442 pages.
Fisher (the Oracle Prophesies series) scores a resounding success in this beautifully imagined science fantasy set in a far future where, many years earlier, civilization was artificially frozen at late-medieval levels in order to save the world from dangerous technologies. Simultaneously, all of the world’s malcontents and madmen were sealed into an unimaginably vast, sentient prison named Incarceron, where a dedicated group of social engineers intended to create utopia. Claudia, the brilliant daughter of the cold-blooded warden of Incarceron, has been raised from birth to marry and eventually control Caspar, the simpleminded heir to the throne. Finn, a young man without a past, is a prisoner in Incarceron, which has become a hideous dystopia, an ‘abyss that swallows dreams.’ When Claudia and Finn each gain possession of a high-tech ‘key’ to the prison, they exchange messages, and Finn asks Claudia to help him attempt an escape. While he negotiates the hideous maze of the prison, Claudia makes her way through the equally deadly labyrinth of political intrigue. Complex and inventive, with numerous and rewarding mysteries, this tale is certain to please. Ages 12 — up. Publisher’s Weekly (here)
Need I say more? Probably not. But when has that ever stopped me. Catherine Fisher has created a “beautifully imagined” world both Inside Incarceron and Out. She brings you straight into her imagination and uses the progression of the story to reveal more and more of the landscapes she has brought to life.
Her characters are really well-conceived. They are credibly consistent, which means everything to the tension and suspense Fisher would build into the story.
There are “numerous and rewarding mysteries,” plenty to fuel allow the reader to believe they’ve figured a few out (“how obvious!”) as a means of distraction. The unexpected answer to a mystery you hadn’t thought you should investigate comes as a relief, because you tire of wondering whether Finn is actually Giles because it seems obvious he is, despite the conversations on “what if you were implanted somehow with parts of someone else.” And well, does it really matter?–thank you Fisher for that (and no that is not sarcasm, but truly genuine).
And then you reach the near end and you realize there must be a sequel. I looked it up on goodreads.com because I noticed Incarceron is out of Great Britain. There is another, Sapphique, and already published in Great Britain—oh, do hurry and hit the shelves here, too. The ending is nicely set for a next adventure.
The Outside, outside Incarceron, is an interesting creation of its own.
The Years of Rage are ended and nothing can be the same. The war has hollowed the moon and stilled the tides. We must find a simpler way of life. We must retreat into the past, everyone and everything, in its place, in order. Freedom is a small price to pay for survival. –King Endor’s Decree (97)
Fearing the destructiveness of advancing technology it is declared that Time stop, and that a Protocol be instituted. Time becomes a prison, and the specific time chosen is particularly prohibiting, the patriarchal ideologies, the clothing, the transportation. They use technology to replicate the chosen Era. And they cheat it as well; use a washing machine, and elevator. Everything may look one way, but there is so much more going on underneath (or within)—a constant visitation in the novel.
Needless to say there are those who rile against the Decree and its Protocol. What would the world look like without progress, advancements of any kind? The character Evian makes this impassioned speech:
We are rich, some of us, and live well, but we are not free. We are chained hand and foot by Portocol, enslaved to a static, empty world where men and women can’t read, where the scientific advances of the ages are the preserve of the rich, where artists and poets are doomed to endless repetitions and sterile reworkings of past masterpieces. Nothing is new. New does not exist. Nothing changes, nothing grows, evolves, develops. Thime has stopped Progress is forbidden. […] We are dying […] We must break open this cell we have bricked ourselves into. (243)
[The Cask of Amontillado, anyone?]
The choice of Era is not only a clever one for its restrictiveness but it also allows for a Queen who is a sorceress, and other such magik and superstition.
“Where are the leaders?” Sapphique asked.
“In their fortresses,” the swan replied.
“And the poets?”
“Lost in dreams of other worlds.”
“And the craftsmen?”
“Forging machines to challenge the darkness.”
“And the Wise, who made the world?”
The swan lowered its black neck sadly.
“Dwindled to crones and sorcerers in towers.”
—Sapphique in the Kingdom of Birds (281)
The use of mythologies: a legend and his odyssey Sapphique; the circles of incapable yet necessary to cross in order to reach the heart of Incarceron, Dante; the Weavers, or The Fates; the biblical, paradise, Incarceron once spoke with its inhabitants, early when the new world was more idyllic (utopic).
I remember a story of a girl in Paradise who ate an apple once. Some wise Sapient gave it to her. Because of th it she saw things differently. What had seemed gold coins were dead leaves. Rich clothes were rags of cobweb. And she saw there was a wall around the world. With a locked gate.
I am growing weak. The others are all dead. I have finished the key but no longer dare to use it. —Lord Calliston’s Diary (317).
There are times when Plato’s Cave comes to mind.
The excerpts from diaries, songs, Legends, correspondence, etc. that begin each chapter are nice; a way to reveal information about the world the reader is discovering, uncovering. They are so well done, well thought out.
There are sections, which seem to shorten the book in a way. Otherwise I haven’t quite figured them out but for considering them as ‘greater chapters’. The chapters (‘lesser sections’?) tend to move between the Inside (Finn) and Outside (Claudia). There are a few necessary chapters where we get other character’s perspectives also. Fisher shifts to alternating sections within chapters when the pace is increased to heighten the sense of peril.
Incarceron, the entity fascinates me,
I begin to wonder, in my heart of hearts, if there even is an Outside, or whether Sapphique passed only into death and you live in a place here I am unable to detect. I have a billion Eyes and sense, and yet I cannot see out. It is not only the inmates who dream of Escape, Claudia. But then, how can I escape from myself?” (391)
They did not give me any way to see outside myself. Can you imagine, Sapphique, you the wanderer, the great traveler, can you even dream of how it is to live forever trapped in your own mind, watching only the creature that inhabit it? They made me powerful and they made me flawed. And only you, when your return, can help me. (429).
Incarceron, the prison, the Inside, could be a dull exercise in construction for the non-sci-fi-reading crowd; it could seem tedious, but Fisher is not the popular idea of an sci-fi foreman, she is refreshingly absent of tedium. I liked her Internalized construct.
I am interested in this realm, Incarceron, where there are numerous reflections on masks and prisons; especially the ideas of imprisonment when within the realm there is the possibility of moving/transitioning through space and Time, and the play of world making. You have the Creators and the Created and their relationships being played out… and you’ve Fisher’s compassionate gaze. The characters (to include the landscape) are consistently flawed and complicated, and it is because the characters exist this way, the story finds its complexity, and ultimately its enjoyment.
more reviews and commentary and less Note-taking (as i seem to be lazily drifting toward)
Michelle‘s take (didn’t care for it): she also has some links to follow (see how lazy I am?)