Incarceron is a 2007 Cybils finalist.
Incarceron is a prison, a penal colony of sorts. All “criminals, undesirables, political extremists, degenerates, lunatics” were placed in Incarceron, along with 70 wise men called Sapienti to guide them, and then the prison was sealed. No one can enter or leave Incarceron and only one person—the Warden of Incarceron—even knows where it is located.
Centuries later, most of the inmates don’t believe that “outside” even exists. But Finn does. Finn has no memories of a time before he awoke in a cell in Incarceron a few years back. Most people believe he was born of Incarceron – a child of the prison created from the recycled bits and pieces of human waste. But Finn believes that he came from Outside, and is determined to find a way back. Life in Incarceron is brutal, violent, and harsh, and Finn survives through a combination of wits and recklessness, and with the help of his oathbrother, Keiro. When Finn gains possession of an ancient artifact, a crystal key, he believes it is proof that he came from Outside. Finn and Keiro, along with an elderly Sapient and a rescued slave, embark on a quest to find the way out of Incarceron.
Claudia is the daughter of the Warden of Incarceron, a position of wealth and prestige. But Claudia is trapped as surely as the inmates of Incarceron; she lives in a society bound by strict social rules, and her destiny was set for her from the time she was a young child, when she was betrothed to the Crown Prince of the Realm. The Crown Prince, Caspar, is spoiled, self-absorbed, and unpleasant. Claudia can handle Caspar—her father has trained her for this her entire life—but the thought of a lifetime of nothing but court politics is depressing for the spirited, curious young woman. Claudia believes that the key to her future lies in Incarceron, and along with her tutor, a Sapienti named Jared, seeks a way into the prison.
As Claudia seeks a way in and Finn seeks a way out, the two come into communication. Each finds that they must come to terms with a reality that is far different than either expects. As they battle for their lives, dark secrets are revealed and loyalties called into question. And the greatest enemy of all may be Incarceron itself.
Incarceron is a riveting book that keeps you turning pages. There are plenty of plot twists, mysteries, excitement, and secrets to hold your attention from the beginning to the very end. Even things that seem obvious may not be as they seem; there’s enough ambiguity to keep you guessing.
The characters are fascinating and have depth and dimension, even many of the minor characters. Many of them seem to be holding back secrets, and motivations and loyalties aren’t always clear. Finn and Claudia are remarkably well-drawn and complex characters. Living in such a brutal environment, Finn has had to develop a certain ruthlessness and recklessness to survive, and yet somehow he has managed to keep a sense of compassion and humanity as well. Claudia is also ruthless in her own way, and well-suited to the political machinations of her world, yet increasingly impatient with them. She fears her father, and yet retains an independence of self in spite of her years of training. As the story progresses, she becomes increasingly willing to take risks and step outside what is expected of her.
Although much is resolved and much is revealed, there are some things left open at the end of the book, and the reader is left with a sense that there are still secrets left to be revealed. Luckily, there’s a sequel in the works, to be called Sapphique.