Incarceron: Catherine Fisher
Reviewer: JW Hicks author of Rats.
What we thought: This YA novel, written by Welsh author Catherine Fisher, is totally gripping from the get-go.
It’s Gothic Fantasy, what’s not to like?
Incarceron: an unimaginably massive prison; a world-scape filled with mountains, rivers, cities and labyrinthine dungeons. Sealed for centuries, it is a storehouse for malcontents, criminals and the indigent, created as a computer-run safe haven. But Incarceron becomes sentient and turns the safe haven into a living hell. Generations live and die unaware that they are captives forever barred from reaching the freedom of Outside. What they don’t know is that the ‘free’ world of Outside is as much a prison as Incarceron.
Outsiders are forced to live in a manufactured, medieval world, where progress is prohibited. Most live a life of serfdom. In this fiercely feudal society, they must toil with basic hand tools, barely subsisting, while their ‘betters’ live the faux life of lordlings – lordlings with access to futuristic technology.
Finn, cell-born deep within the dungeons of Incarceron, is haunted by visions of an earlier life. He refuses to believe he was born in the prison and has always lived there. Convinced he was born Outside, he makes plans to escape with his oath-brother Keiro.
Claudia, daughter of the Warden of Incarceron, lives Outside, trapped in the artificial world of the past, in dread of a forced marriage to a man she despises. She, too, seeks to escape a life of lies, and is helped by her tutor, Jared.
When Finn and Claudia find identical crystal keys, through which they can communicate, their plans look set to be realised. But plans do not always work smoothly. Plans so often go awry, especially under the all-seeing Eyes of Incarceron.
The novel comes complete with a remarkable set of characters, not least the ruthlessly cruel gaoler, Incarceron itself – the AI prison-mind that seeks to see the stars. All of the characters, both evil and good, are many faceted and make compelling reading.
Incarceron is guaranteed to pique, then to sustain your interest until the last page is turned. Once that last page is read, you will feel a sense of loss, a loss eased by the knowledge that there is a sequel. The sequel is Sapphique.
You’ll enjoy this if you like: Titus Groan, Mythago Wood, The Obsidian Mirror
Avoid if you don’t like: Time portals, black-hearted villains and hidden love.
Genre: YA, Gothic Fantasy
Here author Catherine Fisher talks to JW Hicks
How do your ideas come? In a flash, or are they slow lurkers, only gradually rising to the surface?
It's hard to say. Certain ideas can come suddenly- like a miniaturized Prison worn on a watchchain- and then the rest of the story and characters rise slowly to the surface as you write. A lot of things change and emerge; the final book is usually very different from how I imagined it would be.
Your characters are so real, so vivid. Do they arrive fully formed or are they shadowy figures that grow as you write?
The characters definitely develop over time. Sometimes a relatively minor character grows to almost take over the book,because I get very interested in them and their problem. Such as Jared, for example, in Incarceron.
The characters in your novels linger in my mind, particularly the Warden, Keiro and the intriguing Oberon Venn: all of them so fascinatingly dark. Does giving life to your darker characters please you more than bringing heroes to life? Have you a favourite character?
I like characters that are ambiguous and flawed, and maybe not particularly likeable, who are dark and yet may be the ones who save the day in the end. Heroes are a bit one-dimensional; all my characters tend to have problems. The Warden was a particularly fascinating character to write. Keiro is fun, because he is so unabashed in his egoism. Venn... well, I haven't finished with Venn yet.
Are your stories tightly structured, or loosely formed, developing as the the work progresses?
I would really like to work in a tightly structured, organized way, with a carefully detailed plan all ready for me to follow. As it is I never know what is going to happen next, and the story just develops as it wants to. It's a very difficult and frustrating way of writing, but I would find it hard to change now. Managing two or three storylines at once makes it even worse. But it's addictive.
How many drafts does it take to satisfy you that the book is really finished?
Time is always an issue, so I only get to do two whole book edits. Chapters though get endlessly revised as I write, especially the early ones, which often change the most during the course of a book.
How important is an editor?
Vital. Self-indulgence is the writers worst enemy; an editor is a cool eye over what maybe the writer can't even see any more.
How important is a title?
Again, very important; it has to be memorable and evocative. The book cover image has great power too over the buyer. I always think very hard about titles- sometimes they are obvious and and yet other books can be a real struggle to name. Incarceron was a name that I worked out early and liked.
Which books have influenced you?
Alan Garner's novels, especially The Owl Service and Red Shift; Stevenson's adventure stories; Alice; Tolkien; a lot of sf from bad to brilliant. Robert Holdstock's work too, especially Mythago Wood.
What makes you write and keeps you writing?
Deadlines, of course. Also, the fascination of continuing the story to its end and finding out what happens. Creating scenes between characters to free up things you didn't even know they would say or do. And indulging in delicious descriptions of beautiful and deadly otherworlds.
What are you working on at the moment?
I'm working on Book 4 of the Chronoptika set, which will be the final volume. it will be called The Speed of Darkness, and like all final books in a set, it's the hardest.