Oh and yum, that title - "Incarceron". Doomy and echoing, half erudite and half mechanized, those four syllables are what steampunk's all about. It gets my vote for Best Portmanteau Word Invented for a Title This Year So Far. (Possibly tied with the forthcoming animated show Robotomy, written by the good-natured and talented Michael Buckley, author of Sisters Grimm and N.E.R.D.S., which I gotta review one of these days, all my best associate reviewers - my son and his friends - LOVE that book).
Right, ok, so I picked up Incarceron and brought it home and started reading it in the bath, and 75 pages later the water was getting cold and my feet looked like what I imagine Brooke Astor's feet looked like before she died, so I got out. Checked my email and there's my friend Jenny saying she's completely enslaved by this book Incarceron and have I reviewed it yet? I was like, Jeez, man, give me a minute! Just let me dry off here...
So I kept reading. Took it to work the next day and my colleague Ethelbrarian says, "Are you liking that? It's not my usual kind of fantasy, but I could not put it down." Then Grace of the Workroom spots it in my hand and admits to much respect for it. "I don't usually go for anything costumey, but I couldn't figure it out and so I just had to keep reading," she said.
All true. It's an addictive read. Also, a disproportionate number of adults seem to be attracted to it. I haven't seen four adults of my acquaintance reading the same YA novel at the same time since... oh god. Since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came out. Nuts. Now I'm one of those people who have compared this book to Harry Potter.
How about if I change the subject. Hum de dum... I got my eyes checked today - the doc says in twenty years I'll probably get implanted lenses and not have to wear glasses for distance anymore. I thought, "In twenty years I had better be able to get implanted lenses that double as an audio receiver and Google terminal too." I mean, come on - if by Finn and Claudia's time technology will have advanced so far that in order for society to survive, it must regress to a pre-Industrial Revolution era and hold there, surely in twenty years I'll be able to get Pandora piped right into my skull.
Ok, I think I can get back to this review now. Finn is an inhabitant of the aforementioned vast metal prison called Incarceron. His life is cold, dark, hungry, and bleak - he has no family, only an affiliation to a faction of lawless prisoners whose treachery is nearly comic. Claudia, on the other hand, is the privileged daughter of the Warden of Incarceron - educated, beautifully gowned, surrounded by vast wealth in an immense manor house. She too is virtually without family. Her mother is dead, her father seldom at home, and when he is, his manner is distant and judgmental.
As I mentioned, time has been frozen in this world - previous generations had waged war so intensely that they finally scared themselves. The monarchy chose a previous time and place - seems like early Victorian England - and banned all technology, culture, or social reforms invented after that time. An interesting response, to say the least. Thus we have horses and carriages, servants living in thatched cottages, gentry wearing knee breeches. At the same time, about half the population - criminals and the mentally ill - were sent off to colonize Incarceron, a sealed prison that was supposed to be a paradise of opportunity. Education, health care, land, and food were all supposed to be plentiful and free.
Is this beginning to sound Dickensian to you? If so, you're a lot further ahead than I was. It's true, though - these set-piece villains are straight out of Oliver Twist and A Tale of Two Cities, and so are the violent contrasts between rich and poor. The chosen era, of course, is straight out of Dickens, as is the fact that the prison is so central to the plot. Sending undesirables to a far-off land of opportunity is exactly like the Victorian policy of transporting criminals to Australia, which was thought to be a humane alternative to the punishments they would receive in Britain.
It is to Ms. Fisher's credit, therefore, that she can pile up Incarceron's misery and depravity - there are even lepers - against Claudia's sumptuous house and gardens, and create a symmetrical structure that seems neither predictable nor contrived. Dickens was criticized in his time for his sentimentality and the ludicrous coincidences in his plots, and while there are a few seeming coincidences in Incarceron, I don't think we could ever accuse Catherine Fisher of sentimentality.
One could also argue that the by-now frustratingly familiar princess/pauper main character match-up goes back to Dickens. Sure, we know Gregor and Luxa. Hari and Pearl. Nailer and Nita. Kenneth Oppel's done it. Scott Westerfeld reversed it. Even Terry Pratchett could not resist it. But Dickens started it, with Pip and Whatshername. You know, Gwyneth Paltrow. Although I'm sure you could argue that it goes back to Moses and Zipporah, or even further. Now - are Finn and Claudia somehow exceptional, and is that what keeps us turning pages? No, it's not the characters. Don't get me wrong, they're fine characters - but what drives this book is its world.
And I think that's what's frustrating me about writing this review. The nature of Incarceron is the mystery of the book, and it's a truly baffling mystery, and it's resolved SO mind-bendingly, and I could never give it away. So I guess you have to trust me. It's as good as everyone says it is.
Next book in the series is Sapphique.