Incarceron by Catherine Fisher

Cover of "Incarceron (Incarceron, Book 1)...
Cover of Incarceron (Incarceron, Book 1)

I have been reading some more serious non-fiction so, as is my habit, I like to turn to young adult fantasy fiction as a sort of palate cleanser or break. I love books you can get lost in anyways and often these very creative YA title offer that.

Which is why I have been wanting to read Incarceron by Catherine Fisher for some time.  I enjoyed The  Oracle Prophecies series and had heard good things about this new dystopian series.

Here is the publishers synopsis:

Incarceron is a prison so vast that it contains not only cells, but also metal forests, dilapidated cities, and vast wilderness. Finn, a seventeen-year-old prisoner, has no memory of his childhood and is sure that he came from Outside Incarceron. Very few prisoners believe that there is an Outside, however, which makes escape seems impossible.

And then Finn finds a crystal key that allows him to communicate with a girl named Claudia. She claims to live Outside- she is the daughter of the Warden of Incarceron, and doomed to an arranged marriage. Finn is determined to escape the prison, and Claudia believes she can help him. But they don’t realize that there is more to Incarceron than meets the eye. Escape will take their greatest courage and cost more than they know.

The plot hook for this two book series is just so imaginative that it felt like a must read. The background to the worlds is rather pedestrian: continuous evolving of advanced technology eventually leads to devastating war which forces the world to begin anew. The jump off from here, however, is unique to say the least.

Inside: Incarceron, a prison made to be a utopia but that morphs into the opposite. The Outside: a world that is not what it seems; frozen in a protocol that requires time be stopped in the 17th century. Power struggles outside and the never ending search for escape from the inside will result in the collision of the two worlds.

Both sides of this dystopian coin are just so fascinating and captivating. The raw violent world of the prison with its mysteries and nightmares. The power struggles and intrigues of the outside world that, while cloaked in luxury and protocol, can be just as deadly. Inside Incarceron the violence is out in the open and so is the despair and rage. Outside in The Realm the violence is hidden and the despair is pushed away – only the peasants far from the minds of the court feel the despair. But even those inside the court feel the tyranny and stagnation of a culture trapped in time.  Both are places where freedom is an illusion.

“Steampunk” or dystopian fiction is not usually my thing but any fan of epic fantasy or world building will enjoy this one. Dark, complex and mysterious with intrigue and plot twists to keep you guessing Incarceron always leaves you wanting to know more; to dig deeper into these worlds.

The critics ate this one up:


Elegant prose and precisely chosen details deftly construct two very different worlds, hinting at layers beneath the glimpses the tale permits; attentive readers will hear echoes of classic tales, resonant with implications about the meaning of stories, of faith and of freedom. Like the finest chocolate, a rich confection of darkness, subtlety and depth, bittersweet and absolutely satisfying.


This gripping futuristic fantasy has breathless pacing, an intelligent story line, and superb detail in rendering both of the stagnating environments. Fisher’s characters are emotionally resonant, flawed, determined, and plagued by metaphysical questions. With some well-timed shocking twists and a killer ending, this is a must-have.


This novel will no doubt appeal to steampunk fans, a genre that is growing within the teen community. A simultaneously romanticized and fractured version of the past alongside a precarious technology-driven future is a recipe for tension and anxiety, the kind that nourishes strong dystopian science fiction. Fisher’s strength is in her respect for teen readers to enter this world where nothing is as it seems only to discover that solutions are not always what they want them to be. This tome is complicated and the resolution is fraught, but in ways that make the story work.

It could be that the style or genre isn’t quite a perfect fit for me, or it could be that I am not in the intended teen audience, but for whatever reason there was something about it that kept it from being a home run for me.

If I had to guess I would say it is the language and the description. All of the elements were there for a great book but it didn’t quite come together. Great hook, solid characters, nice plot twists, etc. but I felt the length as I was reading.  In other long series once you get sucked in you are racing to the end devouring every page. You can’t wait to get home so you can read it.

I just didn’t have that feeling. I enjoyed reading it and found the various elements imaginative and fascinating but the whole was somehow less than the sum of its parts. I felt like at times the prose didn’t match the set-up – the expectation was high and the descriptions didn’t quite live up to those expectations.

Fisher balances information with a sense of mystery. You really never get to know too much about what happened in the lead up to the building of Incarceron and the establishment of protocol in the realm – it apparently involved a war that damaged the moon. Details are revealed slowly if at all. In many ways this keeps a tension and sense of mystery.

But it also removes some depth that would otherwise be there. And with nearly 450 pages that means a lot of prose without a lot of details.  N. D. Wilson‘s beautiful way with language and description are what makes it possible for his large books to move with a quicker pace – at least for me.

But this could be taste – as I said, I am not a fan of steampunk or a big reader of these type of stories. Either way, Fisher is still a talent and her books are unique and engaging. If you are looking for something different I would  recommend them.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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