Incarceron by Catherine Fisher fits snugly into the dystopian trend in young adult fiction. It tells the story of two people in different worlds. There’s Finn, an inmate in a futuristic prison with the same name as the book. He has no memory of his childhood, and is convinced that he did what no one else in the vast prison has done… seen outside. Then there is Claudia, daughter of the warden of Incarceron, who lives in a highly refined and aristocratic world, one where technology is artificially held back through Protocol.
The book starts with a bang, with Finn about to be run over, and doesn’t let up much through the end. Fisher has mastered the art of throwing rocks at her characters, though it’s often–perhaps as a result of so many hurled rocks–the secondary characters who feel more deftly drawn, if not outright likeable. Attia, a slave girl, was my favorite. She was unquestionably devoted to her master, yet also more than capable of taking care of herself. Lord Evian, a tireless sycophant with a secret, came a close second.
The settings of the book are wonderfully evocative, and change rapidly. Finn moves through the prison world, making his way out from the belly of the beast. Often it feels like the stage sets are the real stars of the book, and the main characters just show up to move the furniture around. Yes, this book fired on all cylinders, but it ultimately never captured me the way I hoped it would.
I did come to Incarceron with high expectations. It was the most recommended young adult fantasy at the SCBWI Weekend on the Water writer’s retreat last November. I heard more than one rave over it. And yes, the book is the work of a master wordsmith and highly skilled storyteller. But it all felt a bit like watching the latest Hollywood blockbuster. The sets were fantastic. The lighting and atmosphere spot on. The actors immensely talented. But the sum of it all somehow lacking.
There were so many opportunities where Incarceron could have offered much more than action, but it never seems to have taken aim for the profound. The story surged from one instance of mortal peril or jaw-dropping scenery to the next, never asking anything too serious of the reader. So that in the end, I wasn’t quite sure what Incarceron is about, and feel that in spite of the fine skill that Fisher displays, I’ll soon forget all about this prison and its inmates.