Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Mind's Prisoner

Sapphique, the sequel to Katharine Fisher's Incarceron, continues the story of two dystopic worlds: one, the Realm, artificially frozen in time roughly around the 18th century; the other, Incarceron, a failed uptopia set up for the incarceration and rehabilitation of massive numbers of The Realm's prisoners, which has instead devolved into a kind of organic-mechanical hybrid hell full of metal forests and half-mechanical animals. Travel between the two worlds (or even any sharing of knowledge) is forbidden for all except the Warden of Incarceron. One legendary figure, however, Sapphique, escaped long ago, leaving behind him a religious hope in both worlds fueled by tales of his exploits.

SPOILER ALERT: To speak of Sapphique requires that we reveal some of the surprises of Incarceron. So if you are determined to have nothing spoiled, go read volume one now. Kelly Fineman has an excellent review of Incarceron here.

In Incarceron, a couple of other "impossible" escapes are either achieved or revealed. Claudia, the Warden's daughter, discovers that she was born in Incarceron and removed by the Warden to be raised as his heir whom he hoped to marry to the next King of the Realm. Claudia, a rebellious child, steals the Warden's key and manages to return to Incarceron where she helps free an amnesiac boy named Finn who may or may not be the true heir to the throne of the Realm. Finn leaves behind his friends Attia and Kerio, swearing to use his power in the Realm to free them. Too many of his secrets revealed, the Warden escapes to Incarceron, damaging the portal so that none can follow him.

Incarceron is not only the prison, but also an intelligence, long gone insane, which runs the prison's systems. Incarceron can produce eyes anywhere within the prison to monitor its activities but it can never see outside itself. Aware that there is an outside world and that all of its senses are turned inward, Incarceron, like its prisoners, wishes to escape. In Sapphique, the prison works with the Warden to build itself a body so that it can abandon the physical prison and its prisoners to explore the outside world. But to achieve this, Incarceron needs one final piece, a glove that once belonged to the legendary Sapphique and which Attia and Keiro have managed to acquire.

Meanwhile, in the Realm, Claudia's tutor Jared attempts to repair the portal but only succeeds in turning it into a kind of replicator. When he tests it on a feather, dozens of feathers burst from it into the portal while a storm of feathers rains down inside Incarceron. Also, Claudia's plan to make Finn the King is complicated by another claimant to the throne who arrives out of nowhere and looks virtually identical to Finn.

As you can gather from the synopsis, the plot of these stories is intricate. Plenty remains unexplained even after 600 pages, but piecing together the history and the logic of these worlds is much of the fun of reading them. The rest is in the intense and surreal action sequences which occur within the nightmarish world of Incarceron and in the subtle and sometimes violent games carried out by members of the Realm's court. Finally there are the inescapable existential questions which the story raises: aren't we all, after all, prisoners within our own minds?

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