The book is the first part of a dilogy, set in a fantasy kingdom which used to be ruled by the Havaarna Dynasty. One of the rulers, king Endor, after a period known as the Years of Rage (a rebellion? a war?) had decided to improve his country by stopping the Time. No change, no stress for the monarch. In practice it meant imprisoning people in the artificial Era (by the look of it 17th century) by a set of rules called the Protocol although the country’s technology seemed to be far more advanced. The orders of the king had forced people to hide all the sophisticated technology behind the Era décor, exactly as in a theatre. To make everybody perfectly happy the king also ordered a group of scientists, called Sapienti, to create an ultimate prison. The Sapienti came up with the idea of Incarceron, which was supposed to be not only a prison but also a kind and considerate guardian for the inmates, with health care, good working and living condition, the right entertainment etc. (yeah, sure, whatever). Seventy Sapienti agreed to inhabit the prison and supervise the criminals dumped there -they did it out of free will because they thought it would be a thrilling Experiment. More or less half of the kingdom's population, a fallout of the Years of Rage, have been sentenced to go to the prison pernamently. Incarceron was also given a life and personality of its own, becoming a kind of independent AI creation. It was sealed permanently then. Outside it has been attended to by a Warden of Incarceron, one of the most powerful people in the country. So far only one human has been rumoured to escape Incarceron and his name or nickname was Sapphique. Nobody knew how he had done it and whether it was true at all.
The narration shows the reader two points of view: one of a prisoner, called Finn, who believes he came to Incarceron from the outside, and the second of the current Warden’s daughter, called Claudia, who is being prepared to get married and become the next Queen.
Through Finn’s eyes we see that the prison is closer to hell than to the idealistic notions of the Sapienti who had created it. The place is horribly unpleasant, some inmates fight each other, forming pillaging bands; the life of prisoners is rather short as they often fall ill and nobody cures them. The prison, although efficient and sustainable, plays its wicked games with the prisoners too. It seems nobody controlls it anymore. In some cells, called Wombs of Incarceron, new inmates and strange animals are grown from recycled dead matter. Finn is believed by one of the local Sapienti, Gildas, to be cell-born and thus special. Gildas hopes Finn might even help him escape because the boy gets strange visions having a kind of epileptic fits from time to time. Finn’s oathbrother, Keiro, considers the whole escape a waste of time, though; like most of inmates he doesn’t believe in any outside world. It all changes when Finn finds a strange crystal object with a crowned eagle inside – the same symbol he has tattooed on his wrist. Perhaps his visions are something more than just figmentsof imagination after all?
Following the chapters of Claudia we learn that the last Havaarna king died leaving his young son under the tender care of a step-mother, who (no surprises here) had also a child of her own, a boy called Caspar. Young prince Giles used to be betrothed to Claudia but when he was fifteen he had a riding accident and died. Now Caspar, the earl of Steen, is the heir to the throne. His mother, queen Sia, rules the kingdom till he reaches 18 and can be crowned. Claudia is going to marry Caspar very soon and be the future queen. Her father, John Arlex, the Warden of Incarceron, has been preparing her for that role since her birth. No expense was spared to turn Claudia into a perfect politician – intelligent, ruthless, pragmatic and cunning. Her tutor, Jared Sapient, imparted knowledge in such a way that Claudia enjoyed learning and soon became a real jewel among teenagers. However, she is not happy – although she lives in luxury her father treats her like an object, a tool to fulfil his ambition, and she starts resenting it more and more. Her fiance, Caspar, has always been a spoiled brat; at the age of seventeen he is already a dim-witted, brutish, drinking philanderer, who couldn’t even finish his education (well, why bother?). Little wonder Claudia is less than eager to marry him. She starts to investigate the accident of prince Giles and finds out that the heir apparent might be alive after all. Where could he be hidden, though? Wouldn’t a prison be an excellent place? Especially one you simply have no hope to escape?
What I liked:
The story is intricate but very well-told, with dynamic pace of narration and surprising twists now and then. I loved the fact that the two worlds presented - the prison and the kingdom – were actually so much alike. The imaginative scale of the authoress made reading this book a Rollercoaster adventure. The descriptions really worked for me - this book is an excellent movie material. What’s more, I found it very realistic that each of the characters had their dark side so close to the surface - Claudia is not just a young high-born girl and Finn is more complex than just a brutal prisoner. As they have to act, fight and lie to survive they change with the story. The ending is simply incredible - I haven't seen it coming for sure. All in all a very good read, not only for children.
What I didn’t like:
I don't want to pick holes in the plot as I haven't read the second part yet. Just let me tell you I didn't like the eyes of the Warden of Incarceron. Why? They changed colour through the book! Very disconcerting!
Page 70 (paperback edition) 'Crystal eagle, dark swan' part 6 :”His black eyes watched her closely”.
Page 382 'The Lost Prince' part 29 :”His grey eyes held hers and the light in them was keen and sharp”.
Perhaps in the second part we will be given a reason for the change. If not, the editor should be given a slap.
The final verdict:
I loved this book and I can't wait to get the second part!! Highly recommended!