It is a truth universally acknowledged (or at least clung to with desperation) that if something works once, it ought to work again. Nowhere is this less true than in the world of novels and writing, where when one author captures lightning in a bottle, a hundred lesser imitations inevitably follow, attempting to duplicate the first author’s success. It never works. Okay, it hardly ever works.
Just as Rick O’Riordan went after the Potter audience with his Percy Jackson series, Catherine Fisher is going after the Hunger Games audience with this first book of a series. Call it the dystopian-future-fantasy genre. The difference is that the Percy Jackson books are…well, good. The same cannot be said about this book.
You know how a lot of people will say about a book that they could see everything happening in their heads? That the writer had a strong visual sense, and a vividness to the writing that made the characters, plot and settings come alive in their imagination? This is the opposite of that. If I had to choose one word to describe the writing in this book, it would be vague. Everything is vague. You know you’re in trouble when some event or situation is being described and you have to go back and re-read to figure out if it’s metaphorical or not. There is no strong sense of setting or place. I was never quite sure where we were or what it looked like or the relation in space of the various settings or events of the plot. I spent the whole book sort of adrift in Stuff That Was Happening, none of which was ever made very clear or striking and none of which invoked a strong emotional response.
The plot itself is pretty vague, too. A young man, Finn, is a prisoner in Incarceron, a seemingly infinitely large facility that people simply are born inside, live and die in. For 150 years the population has lived there, wondering if Outside really exists. Well, it does, and Outside lives under a decree that they must all be stuck in Protocol, being true to the Era, which seems to be a sort of pseudo-Elizabethan time period (although the rich are able to cheat rampantly). There, Claudia is set to marry the heir apparent to the throne, and her father is Warden of Incarceron. She and Finn both separately discover crystal keys to the prison that allow them to communicate, Finn vows to escape, she vows to discover the truth about the prison, and stuff happens. It’s all rather haphazard, the characters are ciphers, and the Big Revelation about the true nature of Incarceron (you knew there’d be one) is profoundly unsatisfying and left me going “Really? That’s what you’re going with? That’s the best you could do?”
I didn’t think it was possible for characters in a novel to have so little chemistry with each other, but there really isn’t any life to the interpersonal interactions here and everything’s just fairly flat and vague and without affect. I’m giving it two stars for creativity and because…well, it isn’t that bad, I guess. But I can’t recommend it, and I don’t think I’ll bestir myself to read the sequel.