Author: Catherine Fisher
Publisher: Firebird (Penguin)
Genre: Sci-fi? Yeah, we'll go with that.
Release Date: 2007
A key. I have a thing for keys - modern ones, antique ones, toy ones, real ones, it doesn't matter. I like keys. I'm not sure what this says about my personality or psyche or whatever, but there it is. So there's this book, and it has a key on it - not just any key, but an opalescent foiled key in the midst of black and silver and gray with the coolest font I've ever seen used for the title splash. And under that, there's this little splash for rusty, bloody red and I'm in love and avoided it for years (or as long as I've been seeing the trade paperback edition that looked like this) because I knew it would swallow me whole. They key, the book, both, whatever. Anyway!
From the beginning, there are comparisons that can be drawn. The first thing I think of is the Cube
movie franchise, particularly Cube Zero where some of the back story is made clear. It's a very different future-world that's painted, but no less oppressive for it; everything in this world revolves around a vaguely Regency-seeming 'Protocol', with very obvious social castes and a less parliamentary monarchy than England's current one, but the governmental system is quite clearly influenced by the author's experiences in Great Britain as much as her study of history. I also think of Beth Revis' Across the Universe to a somewhat lesser extent, though the writing here is more taught, more suspenseful. Several times in the first handful of chapters I found myself be-goose bumped and with my heart racing a little, yelling at the characters to the point that my children wanted to know what I was reading and what they were doing.
We find out early on that this stalling of time in the Regency era came because a king somewhere back along the line thought life simpler and more idyllic then. At what I think is roughly the same time a prison that was meant to become a utopia was designed and executed and the earliest prisoners - political dissidents and liberal academics along with murders and the like - put inside to start the experiment. Each chapter is begun with a quote by some person from that time period, or by a quote from the legends of Sapphique, which I can only imagine will be plumbed further in the sequel titled with his name, and at these beginnings there are vaguely ominous chips and gears and things that match those on the covers. But these things are light and easy compared to what comes later in the chapters. Our characters are butterflies pinned to a backing and labled for us, or so we think. Outside of the obvious prison's confines there are the angry, haughty, rebellious daughter (Claudia) of the cold, seemingly uncaring father (who happens to be Incarceron's Warden), her loyal teacher and friend (Jared), the staff who are all well paid spies and double agents, for the most part. Inside, we have the amnesiac and unwilling hero, prone to visions and seizures (Finn) - seen as both weak and fearsome by those around him, and daring near to stupidity to make up for it - the loyal-for-his-own-reasons oathbrother (Keiro, which I keep pronouncing in my head as Kiero, like Fiero in Wicked), the teacher (who is of the same . . . race? Family? Classification, anyway) as Jared, and the life-debt (and possibly love, of a sort) bound Attia who is far more clever and stronger than she seems at first. Around them, through them, there are plots and counter plots, some Courtly, some known, some only hinted at until the end.
There's the clear set up for the sequel, though this could be read on its own and left like that if you're not me - the story is tied up neatly enough at the end that, if you don't care about the secondary characters, there's no real need to read Sapphique (and I think there's another - it's a trilogy, isn't it?). However, given the writing and the tension I still feel, hours after having finished Incarceron, there's no doubt I'll be at my local bookstore as soon as I have the cash and car to do so, just to pick it up.
In short, this is a must read. And! A good part of that is because of the setting-as-character; Beth Revis (again, I mention her!) wrote an entry about it on the Leage of Extraordinary Writers blog somewhere, and Catherine Fisher has made her world so masterfully. I'm breathlessly (almost literally!) waiting to read more.