It’s not often you come across a book in a grocery store that makes you stop and ponder. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever purchased a book in a grocery store. But after seeing Catherine Fisher’s Incarceron sitting in a special display case with some fairly over-the-top praise surrounding it, I was intrigued. I went home and found out more about the book on Amazon, then actually drove back to the grocery store and bought it, unable to wait any longer.
Incarceron hasn’t been widely released in the U.S. yet–I’m not sure who decided to test it out in supermarkets first, but the strategy clearly worked on at least one reader. Reviews from a half-dozen prominent British sources call it “striking,” “riveting,” “masterful,” and “one of the best fantasy novels written for a long time.” I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s going to flood bookstore shelves pretty soon, that it will be touted as the next Harry Potter or Inkheart, and that there’ll be a movie adaptation. Or it could tank. You never know.
Does it live up to the hype? Not quite, but what book could, really? It’s got two premises that are really compelling, and it may be a side effect of the “young adult fiction” designation that it doesn’t develop those premises with as much complexity as it could. The first premise: a living prison, one that acts as guard, disciplinarian, and executioner–and seems to have a mean streak. Its prisoners don’t always know how they got there, and some were born there (the prison is a self-contained system, absorbing the dead into its non-living structure and producing strange hybrids of human and metal). How the prison came to exist and why is one of the novel’s most interesting mythologies, one that raised more Foucaultian questions than it really had time to answer.
The second premise: a sort of variation on steampunk, in which society has put a freeze on progress, forcing everyone to obey Protocol and live in a kind of eternal medieval landscape. Computers, telecommunication, and modern medicine exist, but they are forbidden to all but a few scholars and scientists (and those with enough money to bribe the rule-makers). Incarceron thus smoothly manages to set its story in a world of kings and queens and sorcery, but with frequent sly winks at the modern world. As with the prison concept, this isn’t explored thoroughly enough–I found myself asking a question that I often pose to my freshman composition students, “What about the big picture?”
Incarceron is a page-turner, and I’ll probably read the sequel (at the moment only available through Amazon UK). Some of its characters are complex, though some fall flat. It doesn’t cheat with its ending, and most of the twists are fairly satisfying. It’s delightfully free of the melodramatic prose and will they / won’t they romance of the Twilight series, though it does depict several subtle platonic relationships (it also has a stronger, more three-dimensional female protagonist), . Overall, though, I was left wishing that someone like China Mieville or Neil Gaiman had tackled this material. Or that Catherine Fisher had written her novel for a slightly older audience.
For teen sci-fi / fantasy fans, Incarceron is pretty much a guaranteed win, and I have a feeling more than a few adults will love it. One note: many of the main characters are described as gaunt, dirty, and diseased, and I really hope that the film version doesn’t prettify them. Sometimes dirty and ugly is a lot more interesting.