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Literature / Incarceron

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Incarceron is a Science Fiction (with the feel of, and marketed as Fantasy) duology by Catherine Fisher. It tells the story of the prison complex known as Incarceron. Incarceron is infinite, inescapable, and to top it off, it's a malevolent sentient being hell-bent on forever confining the thousands of inmates inside it. No one enters, no one escapes — except one boy. Finn is a troubled inmate with vague memories of another life outside the prison.

During a struggle within the prison, Finn finds a crystal key, which he and many others believe may be the key to Incarceron. He soon discovers that the key has another purpose; through the key, which turns out to function as a communication device, he meets a girl named Claudia. Claudia claims to live Outside Incarceron, but is doomed to an arranged marriage. With help from Claudia and from visions of the legendary Sapphique, Finn is determined to unlock the mysteries of his past and perhaps escape from Incarceron.

The sequel and conclusion, Sapphique, reveals greater problems now that Finn has Escaped and is challenged as crown prince by a remarkably similar boy.

These books provide examples of:

  • A.I. Is a Crapshoot: Incarceron started out okay, but went horribly wrong. In the end he's calmed via Jared.
  • The Alcatraz: Since the creation of Incarceron, only Sapphique has escaped, although the Warden may come and go as he pleases.
  • Animal Motifs: Birds, in keeping with the freedom theme. The Havaarna inheritance is symbolized by an eagle, and the Wardenry by a swan. Jared's blue feathers show up multiple times in Sapphique, and Sapphique is almost always represented winged. The motif is not always used positively, though: the Pretender's eagle mask underscores his usurpation, Incarceron threatens its prisoners with the metaphor of Prometheus eaten by the eagle, and "bird with a broken wing" is used for the Maestra's death.
  • Artistic License – History: In-universe; not everyone is terribly good at maintaining Era, and Jared notes upon watching a game of croquet (from the mid-1800s, when they seem to be aiming for the 1700s at the latest) that Queen Sia cherrypicks whatever she likes best rather than going for accuracy.
  • Bad Future The Reveal near the end of Book 1.
  • Become a Real Boy: Incarceron's goal in Sapphique is to acquire a human body.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Incarceron is calmed down and the masquerade has been broken, but some characters are dead and the Outside is reduced to a wasteland.
  • Body Horror:
    • The Half-Men are people who have been "repaired" by Incarceron with robotic components.
    • Chain-gangs are groups of people fused together and sharing a consciousness. They assimilate their victims.
  • Briar Patching: One of the tales of Sapphique involves him facing off against a giant mechanical wolf that threatens him with many deadly fates, but Sapphique begs above all else, not to be thrown into the lake. Of course, when he is thrown into the lake, he swims to safety.
  • Chess Motifs: Barely noticeable in the first book, but emphasized more in Sapphique.
  • Character Title: Both books. A bit clearer in Sapphique since Incarceron is a Genius Loci and could also fall under The Place.
  • Cold Blue Eyes: The Warden, a cold and calculating man, has gray eyes, one of which actually appears in Incarceron's sky at one point. Queen Sia is also noted to have creepily pale eyes and is a terrible person.
  • Comm Links: One of the properties of the keys is communication.
  • Connected All Along: Turns out that Claudia and Incarceron already know each other, although one of them doesn't remember it, and that "Blaize", the Sapiens who rescues Finn and crew, is the Warden, so he actually meets Finn in person before Claudia does.
  • Crystal Dragon Jesus: Sapphique, who is said to have been the only known escapee, is worshiped as a god, and is sometimes called "The Nine-Fingered One" by his followers. He gained this nickname as the result of losing one of his fingers to a beast within the Prison.
  • Dystopia:
    • Incarceron became one when men lost control over it.
    • Outside could also be considered one, with the way Protocol keeps everyone in an enforced Era.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: The characters have to go through a lot, but the books end with things much better than at the start.
  • Eldritch Abomination: Incarceron itself is a living prison with alien skies and a twisted mentality, albeit it was created by man.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": John Arlex is the Warden of Incarceron. Very rarely does anyone call him anything else.
  • Evil Twin: The fake Giles (the Pretender) is evil in contrast to the real Giles.
  • Fainting Seer: Finn's visions come with seizures, unless he's already asleep.
  • Fingore: With a title like "Nine-Fingered One", what were you really expecting?
  • Follow in My Footsteps: Claudia's father, the Warden of Incarceron, has raised her to succeed him and become the ruler of the Realm.
  • Future Imperfect: The characters often reference real-life works of fiction (Alice in Wonderland, Moby-Dick, Sleeping Beauty, Scandinavian mythology, etc.), but end up mixing the references together, so that one of the characters believes he's heard a story about someone chasing a white rabbit for forty years and then being swallowed by said rabbit and travelling inside its stomach.
  • Gilded Cage: The Realm at first looks like a perfect place (for the rich at least), but it's actually ruled by a tyrannical elite who enforce Protocol. Just like in Incarceron, people are not free.
  • God Save Us from the Queen!: Queen Sia is the Big Bad, and oppresses her people.
  • Good All Along: Lord Evian, though "good" may be a speculative term.
  • Good Is Not Nice: Keiro is a callous Combat Pragmatist that everyone but Finn seems to assume will betray them the second it's convenient for him, but he honors his bond with Finn and saves him and Attia several times throughout the books.
  • Grand Theft Me: A heroic example; Jared puts on Sapphique's glove and enters the body Incarceron was trying to use.
  • Great Escape: The main characters are trying to escape from a Genius Loci prison. It is quite a feat.
  • Had to Come to Prison to Be a Crook: Before he was put into Incarceron, Finn was a gentle prince. His time in Incarceron changed him a lot, as lampshaded by many.
  • Handicapped Badass: Jared's sickness tacks an "invalid" label on him that most everyone agrees upon. It doesn't make him any less of a badass.
  • Hedge Maze: The Wardenry, in keeping with its fancy manor house status, has one. It's mostly portrayed positively, as a place Claudia and Jared can get privacy.
  • Hellhole Prison: Incarceron treats its prisoners as playthings to manipulate for its own enjoyment.
  • Hypocrite: Most nobles, especially Queen Sia, are happy to enforce the rules of Protocol on others while using all kinds of advanced technology behind the scenes.
  • Icarus Allusion: Another Sapphique tale involves him building artificial wings to try and Escape via Incarceron's sky/ceiling. Incarceron doesn't approve and casts him down.
  • It Was with You All Along: Claudia had been looking for an entrance to the Prison behind the gate, but found nothing. Only later is it revealed that the Warden keeps it as a charm on his watch.
  • Laser-Guided Amnesia: Finn. He can't remember his childhood, but recalls vague bits from his past.
  • Laser Hallway: Incarceron can fill halls with lazers when it locks down as a security measure
  • Luke, I Am Your Father: Inverted. Claudia is revealed to not be the Warden's daughter; she was born in Incarceron.
  • Made a Slave: Attia starts out as Jormanric's dog-slave, having been captured by the Comitatus during a raid on the Civicry.
  • Malevolent Architecture: Incarceron, naturally, is a prison that darkly plays with its prisoners.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Everyone's visions/hallucinations of Sapphique, particularly when Jared dreams that Sapphique is taking care of him during a bad episode of his illness that comes on during his flight from the Academy after an attempted assassination. He wakes up alone in the woods, but as recovered as if somebody really did take care of him.
  • Meaningful Name: The name of Martor Sapiens, the original leader of the Sapienti who willingly entered Incarceron with the intent to guide and care for the inmates, is homonymous with "martyr".
  • Medieval Stasis: A collection of laws, simply known as Protocol, forbid progress in the outside world (although the Era they are trying to emulate is more like the Renaissance or later than the Middle Ages).
  • Mouse World: Incarceron is contained within a cube that the Warden wears, and people enter it by crossing some kind of time-space barrier.
  • No Hugging, No Kissing: No romance, although Claudia and Finn were engaged and get married.
  • Psychic Dreams for Everyone: By Sapphique, not only is Finn still getting visions, but Attia and Jared have started having dreams about Sapphique too.
  • Shrouded in Myth: Sapphique is worshiped as a god after their escape from the infamous prison but little is truly known about them.
  • Split-Personality Merge: While they were originally separate, at the end Jared's gentle personality is placed within Incarceron's, calming him.
  • Super-Intelligence: The Sapients, who created Incarceron and now hold all the advanced knowledge of the past before Era.
  • The Stoic: Playing the nobility game Outside means being this all the time. The Warden is a master in hiding his emotions, and Claudia has learned from him (but she is less stoic when with Jared).
  • The Wall Around the World: Near the end of the first book, Finn and gang fly a silver airship into the hole of what seems to be this. Whether or not it actually was is debatable.
  • Throwing Down the Gauntlet: Finn challenges the Pretender to a duel by doing the traditional "chuck a glove at him".
  • Tough Love: Although John Arlex is hard on Claudia and has essentially raised her to become the perfect Queen, he eventually admits that he grew to love her as a true daughter.
  • Tricked-Out Gloves: Sapphique's Glove in, well, Sapphique. Rix also has several gloves that sparkle and are filled with acid.
  • Underestimating Badassery: Everyone underestimates Jared.
  • The Unmasqued World: At the end of Sapphique, the holograms and everything that kept the nobility in power are broken, and the people can see what the world really looks like.
  • Weather-Control Machine: Incarceron controls its own climate, able to make the temperature unbearably hot or freezing cold.
  • What Could Possibly Go Wrong?: Let's face it, a sentient prison is not a good idea. Especially if there is no way out whatsoever.
  • You Are What You Hate: Keiro hates the Half-Men, people with mechanical limbs that were either born with them or "fixed" by Incarceron. It later turns out that Keiro himself is a Half-Man, and one of the reasons he hates them so much is because he was born with it and he's not sure how far the mechanical parts go.