Saturday, January 1, 2011

Review of Sapphique by Catherine Fisher

(Short preamble - skip to the next paragraph to read about Sapphique)
This is my first review of 2011, but I'm not too sure how many more I'll be doing this year. I'm on the Newbery Committee (woooooooo!!!!!!!!!!!) and to judge from my colleague Madeline, who is on the 2011 Committee and has been reading like crazy all year and especially over the past 6 months (and most especially over the last month), there won't be all that much time to read anything but Newbery-qualifying books. And while I'm assuming that reviewing those books on this blog is allowed as long as I make clear that these are all MY opinions and not the committee's, I don't know if I'll feel comfortable with that. So... this blog may have mainly a Children's Library Services focus for a year, or perhaps I'll move to reviewing picture books (which have the benefit of being short). But enough of this rambling - on to the review.

Fisher, Catherine. Sapphique. Dial, 2010.

Those of us who read and loved Incarceron were thrilled to see Sapphique published in the same calendar year. Thank goodness Fisher is such a fast and accomplished writer, because she does like cliffhanger endings.

Finn is now Outside the prison Incarceron, working with Claudia and her tutor/mentor/friend Jared to fix the portal to the prison while also trying to stay alive and well despite all the machinations and plots boiling around them in the Court. The Warden is stuck inside Incarceron, as are Finn's oath-brother Keiro and companion Attia. All three are trying to figure out a way to use a powerful Glove to get out of the prison, without letting the unbalanced and cruel consciousness of Incarceron itself get it first.

Like the first installment, scenes take place alternately in Incarceron, with its strange and eerie artificial landscapes, and Outside, in a world whose archaic perfection is an illusion in almost every way. There aren't many revelations in this installment, as readers already know most of the secrets revealed in the first book, so it's easy to simply jump into the story and become immersed without any confusion or puzzlement. The plot hums along all the faster for this, and by the end, with both worlds literally falling apart around the characters' ears, readers will be reading as fast as they can to see what happens next.

In many of these dystopian books, the society in which the characters find themselves has been created expressly in reaction to a past hideous situation - a nasty, decades-long war, perhaps, or destructive climate change, or something else that led to a decision to cast off all the old ways and start anew. Usually this means a huge loss of freedom and knowledge for the citizens, since the new society's creators figure that humans do stupid and destructive things when allowed to do or know too much; consider The Giver by Lowry, Matched by Condie, the Ugly series by Westerfeld, and many others. But the rub is that there must be a small, elite group in the know, the ones who are "protecting" all the others by squelching all dissent in order to keep society going. These folks, even if well-meaning initially, generally have become downright nasty by the time the story we are reading takes place.

The interesting thing about Sapphique is that, in order for the society to keep running, the entire ruling class that is benefiting from it must buy into the illusion that all is well. This is a particularly fascinating aspect of the novel - I kept wondering how far illusions extended. Is the food Claudia eats actually exquisite, or is it rotting meat and rough barley bread? And if the latter, does the technology that maintains the illusions also ensure that folks don't get tummy aches? The situation of the poor people is also thought-provoking. Presumably they are leading more of a real life, so they may actually be more healthy than their aristocratic neighbors, not to mention better able to survive when the illusions disappear.

Although very few of the main characters remain particularly likable, with the exception of the fabulous Jared, the reader can't help but root for them. This well-written and fast-paced fantasy novel is recommended for those who have read and enjoyed Incarceron.


  1. Congratulations on your appointment to the Newbery committee!!!! That is fantabulous news!

  2. You can always review non-Newbery eligible novels. Think of all those great British authors who can't win the gold seal! If you have time, of course...