by Catherine Fisher
It was an ambitious social experiment: prisoners would be sealed into a self-contained Utopia with the greatest scholars of the age, who would guide the degenerates toward reformation. Unbothered by the troubles of the “real” world, the men and women in Incarceron would transcend their past and be reborn. At least, that was the theory, but something seems to have gone wrong along the way. Incarceron became a self-aware entity that enjoys teasing and toying with the people living within it. As the descendants of the original scholars and prisoners struggle to eke out a living inside, the outer world has been frozen in time. Although technology beyond our current capabilities exists, a strict body of rules - the Protocol – traps people in a 17th century lifestyle. In this outer world, a young woman named Claudia finds a key that allows her to speak to one of the residents of Incarceron, a boy named Finn. Finn can’t remember anything from his childhood, but dim recollections of a starry sky and an evening party hint that he may not have been born in the closed world of Incarceron. As the two communicate in secret, each learns that the other’s world is nothing like they’ve been told, and they begin to devise a way to get Finn out – if Incarceron will let him go.
First, the good news: the world of Incarceron is fascinating. I love the idea of a self-sustaining building that absorbs the waste and detritus of its inhabitants and then recycles it into new plants or animals or whatever the system might need. I love that a society would try to rehabilitate its criminals, and that some of the greatest minds of the era thought it a worthy challenge. I’m intrigued by how disturbing it is that they would abandon these criminals to total isolation – I mean, when have island penal colonies ever worked out? (No offense, Aussies.) But I really liked the idea of Incarceron and its evolution was incredible.
But the execution of this book wasn’t always so good. The beginning just throws you into Incarceron, so suddenly that for a while I was nearly certain that I must have picked up a mid-series book. There’s very little background or contextual information given at the start. It’s also incredibly slow and, well, dull at the beginning. I very nearly put the book down twice, but pushed through to the good bits.
And the good bits do come – but it feels like an awful long slog to get there.
The characters take a while to get it together, too. To be honest, I never really warmed up to Finn. Claudia’s a complicated girl. Her father is the Warden of Incarceron, so her family is one of the most important at court – in fact, Claudia is to join the Queen’s son in an arranged marriage. She has to maneuver through countless plots and plans – those of her father, the Queen, her personal Sapient, to start – and she does, retaining her own independent streak in the process. The secondary characters often seem promising, but we see so little of them that it’s hard to grow attached.
I’ve seen this book described as ‘steampunk’ several times, but now that I’ve actually read it I’m not sure what that association comes from. I suppose if you define ‘steampunk’ as ‘melding historical fashions to futuristic technology’ than this would qualify, but I don’t think that’s quite right. There’s something more to it – or at least something more Victorian. At any rate, while this is certainly a fantasy novel and perhaps a science fiction one (depending on how strictly you need the mechanics of technology spelled out to qualify) I wouldn’t label it as steampunk.
This living prison is fascinating, and even though the book has a lot of problems I’m going to pick up the sequel, Sapphique, for sure. The world-building was just that convincing and good.
3 out of 5 stars
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Peeking into the archives...today in:
2011: Another little break for school…
2010: News?: Leaves of Grass
2009: Doodle of the Day: Twilight
2008: Dream Jungle by Jessica Hagedorn