Thursday, August 11, 2011

Incarceron (with a little Sapphique)

A prison that needs no guards because it regulates itself. A prison that once you enter you never leave so eventually the prison contains, not the original prisoners, but their descendants. Incarceron by Catherine Fisher has an almost irresistible premise. It is a unique setting for a fantasy novel and Fisher imported into it traditional fantasy tropes. There is a quest, a missing heir, plenty of ruffians who ambush our intrepid heroes, and an evil sorceress(?). Despite the prison setting there is also a journey (because it is required).  I really enjoyed how Fisher merged the futuristic setting with the traditional fantasy elements. Reading Incarceron was an intense and exciting experience. 
Incarceron was created to be a prison, but also a a Paradise. All the undesirables were sent with a group of wise scholars into its mazes of ducts, streets, metal forests, and halls. Incarceron was programmed to provide all they needed and to regulate its world.  Now, centuries later, the descendants of the original inmates still live within its walls and it is most definitely not Paradise. Finn is a prisoner but believes he hasn't always been.  He has no recollection of his life before a few years ago. He has memories of stars and sky and cakes. He believes he came from Outside and longs desperately to escape. Everyone tells him Outside doesn't exist, despite legends that one man has escaped before. But Outside does exist and is ruled by a tyrannical Queen who keeps everyone enslaved to Protocol, an enforced replica of an ideal past. This is where Claudia, daughter of the Warden of Incarceron, lives. Desperate to escape an arranged  marriage to the obnoxious prince, Claudia begins to uncover the facts around the death of the true heir and her father's position.  What she finds is the key to Incarceron and Finn.

Incarceron is a fantasy world gone dystopian and I love when authors play with genre like this. Most fantasy novels are medieval reimaginings. Here there is very advanced technology in a futuristic society pretending that it is in the past.  The world building is intriguing. Each chapter opens with an excerpt from a historical document explaining how this world evolved. It is a puzzle and one that I wanted to solve. It was this that kept me fascinated, trying to figure out how all the elements worked.

The characters I didn't know quite what to do with. It was hard to truly like or get attatched to any of them because none of them were trustworthy. Finn is certainly one I felt tremendous sympathy for.  I wanted him to find out who he was and how to escape.  At the same time I knew even if he did his life wouldn't exactly be sunshine and daisies, so it was hard to watch him move toward an end that couldn't be good whichever way it went. It is hard to get a handle on Finn's character because he doesn't know who  he is.  The characters who know him keep saying he is a master liar and manipulator, but nothing he does indicates this to be the truth. Claudia I didn't like at all. She is selfish, impetuous, and spoiled. The characters who know her keep saying how intelligent and ruthless she is but her actions demonstrated little evidence of either characteristic. Was Fisher trying to say something about how perception matters more than fact in how others respond to a person? I was never quite sure if that was her intent or if the characterization was just off. The characters I found the most intriguing were the Warden and Keiro (Finn's arrogant mercenary oath brother).  What that says about me I don't quite know. (Except that I like characters that actually are intelligent, ruthless, and complex.)

In addition to the puzzle of the world I was also interested in the philosophy of the story and questions raised. The musing of the first prisoner in Incarceron,  found in a book: "...or is it that man contains within himself the seeds of evil? That even if he is placed in a paradise perfectly formed for him he will poison it, slowly, with his own jealousies and desires? I fear that we blame the Prison for our own corruption." There is also the legend of the one who escaped the Prison, Sapphique, how he promised to return and how there are those who are waiting for him and clinging to this hope.  I wondered where this was all leading.

In the end the revelations on the nature of Incarceron require a great suspension of belief. I know it is fantasy so of course it does, but there is a reconciliation of ideas here that it is hard to wrap one's mind around. There are more questions left unanswered than answered, and the book ends abruptly with little resolution.

It's a good thing I had the sequel ready to go...
I'm don't want to include spoilers for this or Incarceron so this is going to be rather vague.  I had a more difficult time with Sapphique.  There are all the questions from the first one still to be answered plus more questions piled on: Is Finn really Giles? Was Sapphique an actual person or merely an idea symbolic of Escape? How can Incarceron be what it is? Where did Rix come from and how was he able to do what he could? None of these are answered. Even a little bit. I'm actually okay with that.  I don't mind unanswered questions.

There were other things that troubled me though.  The resolution was big problem for me. It left me with an intense feeling of what the heck?????? And while the plot resolves itself none of the issues with the characters are resolved.  And that I have problems with.  There are individual uncertainties and relational uncertainties and none of the characters grew or changed at all. Given the massive upheaval they all went through I felt this to be ridiculously unrealistic. And Claudia. I basically HATED her by the end of this book. I do give Fisher credit for having the guts to create such an unlikable character to be one of your two main protagonists, but it made it difficult for me to want to read any scene she was in.

If you like books with clear resolution, avoid these. I enjoyed Incarceron far more than I enjoyed Sapphique. If I had it to do again I would just be content with the end of Incarceron and not read Sapphique at all.

I do like Fisher's writing quite a lot though and am eager to read more of the books from her backlist

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