Incarceron, by Catherine Fisher
It was decided from the beginning that the location of Incarceron should be known only to the Warden. All criminals, undesirables, political extremists, degenerates, lunatics would be transported there. The Gate would be sealed and the Experiment commence. It was vital that nothing should disturb the delicate balance of Incarceron's programming, which would provide everything needed - education, balanced diet, exercise, spiritual welfare and purposeful work - to create a paradise.
One hundred and fifty years have passed. The Warden reports that progress is excellent.
Court Archives 4302/6
In reality, Incarceron is hell. Gangs, some more violent than others, each with its own rules and traditions, wander the endless tunnels and hallways. Kindnesses are repaid with betrayal, and the only way to ensure survival is to be faster, stronger, smarter and more devious than the next person. The only thing more terrifying than the inmates is the Prison itself.
Finn, a member of the especially brutal Comitatus, woke up three years ago with no memory of his past. Some of his fellow prisoners believe that Finn is 'cell-born', a child of Incarceron, created by Incarceron, while others believe he is simply half-mad. What he believes is quite different: He believes he came from Outside. Though no one has left Incarceron in over a century (except one legendary man), Finn believes his flashbacks of a life Before, his knowledge of things he could never have known or experienced Inside, could have come from nowhere but Outside.
On the Outside is Claudia. The Warden's daughter, she has been raised to be the next Queen. She lives in a world forced to adhere to the traditions, culture and technology of 17th-century life. Finn's world is brutally violent, and Claudia's world is no less so—it's just less obvious. Violence, political machinations, blackmail and assassinations are hidden behind complex and formal etiquette. Within Incarceron, there are fights to the death. Outside, there are dangerous secret alliances, a secret society, even a secret religion.
Though Claudia recognizes her position as the Warden's political pawn, she has been taught well by her tutor and, inadvertently on his part, by her father. She is not helpless, friendless, or completely naive. At the moment, she is as trapped as the people in Incarceron. But she doesn't intend to live like that forever.
I didn't mean to go on and on about the set up, but I loved this book. Catherine Fisher not only created a whole culture, complete with a belief system, traditions and subcultures within Incarceron, but she also created a whole separate culture outside of Incarceron. The more Finn and his companions explore on the inside, the more vast they realize the place is, the more they realize they don't know about their environment—and the other people who inhabit it.
Fisher does a great job of weaving in bits and pieces of our stories and literature into their world—images that the reader will recognize, but that mean nothing to people who have lived their whole lives Inside. The poetry excerpts, pieces of legends, diary entries and report information that begin each chapter make the world she's created all the more real.
The heroes, Finn and Claudia, are both smart, determined and sympathetic. The secondary characters are people in their own right, each with their own motivations and secrets. There are chases, captures, questions of loyalty, escapes, battles, mysteries, and thrilling edge-of-your seat moments. The conversations between Claudia and her father are especially tense—every single time he walked into the room, I got worried. It's a smart, complex, engrossing and emotionally involving read.
While the ending could very well be the ending of a stand alone novel, I'm hoping for more. There are lots and lots of loose ends and there's just so much more that I want to know about their world.