Finn lives in Incarceron, a prison conceived as a great utopian experiment, designed so that criminals and scholars could reboot society and create a paradise together. Instead, knowledge and humanity are lost, ailing, self-destructing. Within the prison, which is vast enough to contain isolated settlements and small enough to gather in close around its inhabitants, the question of self-determination--and what it means to be human--looms large as the prison both takes over and shuts down. When Finn finds a strange key with a symbol matching the tattoo on his wrist, and he can hear and see someone inside the key, he starts to believe that he came from Outside, and that maybe an Outside of Incarceron exists. Only one person is ever thought to have escaped from Incarceron, and if Finn is to escape, he'll need help--the prison wants him. Maybe wants him dead.
Claudia is the daughter of the warden of Incarceron prison, and she finds a matching crystal key that can be used to talk to Finn. She's about to marry the prince, Outside, and one day she is to be queen. It's all arranged: Claudia's world is one where it was decided that rules and protocols were the marker of a fine society, and so everyone must play assigned roles in a sort of Faire-esque dystopia. Only the upper classes can find comfort, because they're the only ones who can hide plumbing behind the holographic doors to the chamberpots and the only ones who can sneak a few modern conveniences (like medicines) in around the edges of the law. Even as Claudia discovers more about the world Outside, her thoughts keep returning to Finn, whom she suspects is someone more than the average prisoner--but the mystery of where the prison is, its nature, and who inhabits it could be her own destruction.
There's a lot going on in Incarceron, in a good way, and it's been a long time since I felt a book had just the right number of characters, all of them well-drawn and vivid. Incarceron's story is split fairly evenly between book 1 and its sequel, Sapphique. There's a lot to chew on, from the various plot lines to subtle references to legends that appear as broad stripes. I find it especially interesting that Incarceron draws its heart from science fiction, but makes its points through fantasy. I struggle with comparisons, but I think Incarceron has the beguiling and familiar charm of Harry Potter, where you want to climb in and look around even though you know that's not a good idea; the intensity of The Hunger Games, because these books are pretty relentless; the intricacy of The Golden Compass, with a plot bigger than any single hero/ine; the surreal imagination of Alice in Wonderland; and a sweep as wide The Lord of the Rings, if at the same time claustrophobic in its setting.
For me, the real appeal of Incarceron is the ensemble cast; the sense of danger and adventure; the blend of fantasy and dystopia, and even fantasy as dystopia; the gripping plot; and the twists. If you and I are book friends, then you'll be pleased to know that the sequel to Incarceron, Sapphique, came out in the U.S. last December. Both books are available in the U.K. A film adaptation is in the works.