Found via: Read Roger, Jan/Feb Horn Book Starred Reviews
Incarceron is the perfect fantasy story for me: it has a lot of the trappings of fantasy (pseudo-medieval clothing and social system and mystical characters), but it's also set firmly in the future, which means in my mind I can call it science fiction and be totally accurate.
This is how I justified reading The Dragonriders of Pern when I was in high school - so maybe this line of reasoning doesn't have the world's greatest track record (I kid, Pern fans).
Incarceron follows two stories that are eventually interconnected: Finn, a prisoner inside the horrid world of Incarceron, considered to be a starseer by his fellow inmates; and Claudia, the daughter of the warden of Incarceron, betrothed to marry the Queen's son, and chafing under the rules of Protocol. That Protocol is how we get a fantasy setting in a science fiction world: for reasons that are mostly unexplained, it was decided decades (centuries?) ago that humanity would revert to living in medieval style, with kings and queens and serfs and servants and castles and thatched roofs.
Though everyone in Incarceron knows no one has entered or left the prison since it was built, Finn has visions of life outside and believes he once lived outside of the prison. He collects a motley band of fellow inmates who believe him, and are willing to follow him and the mysterious key he has scavenged, a key that matches the mysterious mark on his arm.
Outside of Incarceron, Claudia is determined to learn its secrets, for even though her father is the warden he has never spoken of the prison to her. She doesn't even know where it's located. When she snoops in her father's office one day, she discovers a key to Incarceron - and is startled to discover it is also a way to communicate with inmates inside. Specifically, the inmate holding the matching key: Finn.
As Claudia's arranged marriage is quickly approaching, she spends much of her free time talking with Finn, trying to help him find a way out, and is startled to discover Incarceron isn't the Utopia she'd always been told it would be - that even though it was populated by criminals from before the introduction of Protocol, with proper food and education they would have created a paradise within the prison. As she speaks with Finn, Claudia becomes convinced that he's not just an ordinary prisoner - that in fact he may be a member of the royal family who died under mysterious circumstances several years back. If she can just get him out of the prison and prove who he is, she can avoid her marriage and overthrow the Queen.
Incarceron has all the marks of another great dystopian series (like so many books today, it's the start of a trilogy). There are lots of mysteries left to uncover in the second and third books. At the same time, there are a few hiccups here - a lot of the basic world building goes unexplained, most notably the Sapients. It's pretty clear that they aren't normal humans, and that they are somewhat respected as scholars (both in and out of Incarceron) - but we have absolutely no explanation of anything else about them. No physical description, nor explanation of how another sentient species is living with humans. While I'm fine with some things being left to be explored later in the series, since Sapients play large roles in Claudia's and Finn's lives, I would have liked to have more explanation of who they are.
The lack of background aside, however, this is a great addition to the explosion of dystopian YA we've seen over the last few years, and I'm definitely eagerly awaiting the next installment!