Phoenix Island


Author: John Dixon

Publication: 2014, Gallery Book

Pages: 306

Overall Rating:bth_5-star-rating_zps467d5332[1]

Rating for Action: bth_5-star-rating_zps467d5332[1]

Quantity of Action: bth_45_zps06f87659[1]

Age Category: 13+

Brief Summary: Carl Freeman has a history with the law.  He’s been arrested dozens of times, and been through foster families, group homes, and detention centers in four states.  And all for same crime: beating the crap out of bullies.  It doesn’t matter if he knows the victim or not.  If he sees anyone getting beat on, he beats on the bully – whether it’s a kid or a cop.  And he’d damn good at it, too, having won national championships in the boxing ring.  But Carl’s reached the end of the line.  No more juvie.  Now it’s either prison – real prison – or Phoenix Island, a terminal facility where he’ll go until he’s 18.  If he makes it there, he can have his record expunged and go on to a normal life.  It’s a chance, his last chance.  Only problem is, it’s no chance at all.  As Carl soon discovers, Phoenix Island is no ordinary boot camp.  It’s on an island in international waters.  No laws apply.  The guards are sadists, the punishments are brutal, and the goal has nothing to do with reform.  Carl isn’t there to be helped.  He’s there as part of a deadly experiment to create the next generation of soldiers.

Age of Main Character: 16

What I Liked the Most: Carl is a fantastic lead for a book like this – tough, driven, with a troubled past and a deep seated unwillingness to give into bullies no matter how bad it gets.  Put that attitude – and the skills to back it up – against the absolute brutality of Phoenix Island, a place where bullies reign supreme, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for a dramatic clash.

Dixon takes that recipe and runs with it, constantly upping the stakes and placing more and more obstacles in Carl’s path.  But he also knows how to give us a breather, how to let the tension drain at strategic moments and use those opportunities to help Carl build up real relationships with some of the other inmates.  By making those characters tough and admirable in their own right, when they get into serious trouble and Carl tries to rescue them it sends the tension through the roof.

Add in a rich jungle setting, and a villain who manages to be both fatherly and sadistic, and you’ve got one amazing read.

What I Liked the Least: My only complaint with the book was that we never found out what brought most of the other kids to Phoenix Island.  And this is important because, while the Island is meant to be a terminal facility for hardcore offenders – kids the rest of society has given up on – the ones Carl ends up befriending seemed far too nice to have done anything to get sentenced there.  Could they have committed a crime that would land them in juvie?  Sure.  And in the case of his friend Octavia we even learn what that crime was.  But there’s a huge difference between committing a single crime that sends you to juvie and engaging in a string of crimes that warrant a terminal facility like Phoenix Island.  And the kids Carl befriends did not act like hardened repeat offenders.  So I couldn’t help asking myself, what they were doing there other than giving Carl someone likable to defend?

How Good was the Action? Holy crap is it good.  Dixon was a Golden Gloves boxer before writing this book and the experience shows.  His fight scenes are out of this world, a perfect balance of bone crushing detail and emotional reaction extended out over many pages.  And the chases are fast and furious and not afraid of serious injuries.

How Engaging was the Story?  This is obviously a plot-driven book, but that doesn’t mean Dixon has stinted on character development, particularly not when it comes to his lead.  Carl’s obsessive need to defend the weak and his refusal to give in no matter how great the odds, play right into the sadistic social structure of Phoenix Island, forcing a steady upping of the ante as we learn the Island’s secrets and find Carl and his friends thrust in ever more deeply over their heads.  It creates a steady uptick in the tension that I found impossible to ignore.  And Dixon’s ending proved both unexpected and extremely satisfying.  I can only say that I hope there’s a sequel in the offing.

Profanity: Minimal.

Sex: None to speak of. 

Violence: Tons.  The violence here is brutal and immediate.  The fights are bone crushing.  The punishments are sadistic.  The bullying is up close and personal.  This is real and it’s ugly.

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