Phoenix Island by John Dixon (Gallery Books, Dec. 2014)-16 year old Carl Freeman has gotten into one fight too many when he’s sentenced to Phoenix Island, a military boot camp for delinquent teens. Carl figures if he just keeps his head down and doesn’t make trouble, he’ll get through it and earn his freedom. However, there are rumors about horrible punishments given to other kids, and bullies seem to have free reign to pick on the weaker kids. Bullies are actually Carl’s weakness, and he can’t abide someone stronger picking on someone weaker. So much for keeping his head down. It doesn’t help matter that a particular guard seems to have it out for him. On the bright side, he does make friends with a boy named Ross, and finds himself attracted to a girl named Octavia. As the days go on, he realizes that here may be more to the island than he thought, and that freedom might not be possible.
I love the idea of this novel, and the trick is presenting it in a refreshing way, which Dixon does by populating it with fully fleshed out characters and putting them in genuinely terrifying situations. The location can be unforgiving. I think you can probably imagine all the nasty things one can encounter in the jungle, and indeed our protagonists face some creepy crawlies in one very memorable scene. Carl is a good kid that’s had a bad time of it: his parents died when he was young, and he’s been in and out of foster care since. He really can’t control his fists, and he knows how to use them. He’s one of the best young boxers in the US, and he’s got a medal to prove it. We know things aren’t going to be easy for Carl upon arrival at Phoenix Island. One of the first things a drill sergeant does is take away his championship medal. This kicks up Carl’s dander right off, but he’s determined to get through this so he can go home, wherever home may be. We also learn that all of the kids on the island are orphans. If you had nefarious plans, wouldn’t you want to use orphans to further them, since they have no one back home that will worry about them? Eventually, and with dawning horror, Carl realizes that they’re all expendable and the strong ones are destined for something diabolical. Carl isn’t perfect, but he really is a good guy in a sea of people who are always trying to one up each other. Carl is constantly faced with the choice of doing the “right” thing, and doing what he needs to do to survive, and to protect his friends. Lest you think that this book is about and for guys only, it’s not. Along with Carl, Octavia is one of the strongest characters in the book, and although she and Carl have an instant attraction, they’ll have to be strong for one another, very quickly.
Any one of us can imagine how scary this would be, I would think. Look back to when you were 16 or so, and recall how important acceptance and security was, and for most, still is. Without parents, these kids have no one to turn to, and the adults that are in charge of them aren’t necessarily concerned about their best interests. So, they must lean on each other, and loyalty is also a big theme in this book. Dixon combines the best of horror, survival adventure, and coming of age and wraps it up with an untidy bow. I say that because there’s a lot of grey here. The author knows that people aren’t as simple as black and white, and that those that would manipulate the lives of others may actually think they’re doing the right thing. It was necessary for the author to introduce some sci-fi effects, since the real reason for Phoenix Island is to weed out the strongest and turn them into something more, much more. The man in charge is undeniably insane, but seems to really believe in his wildly destructive vision of the future, and he’s got his eye on Carl.
There’s lots to love here, and the pace rarely lags. Some time is spent on setup, which is necessary, but it when it takes off, it really doesn’t let up. The myth of the phoenix serves a dual purpose, it plays a big part in a madman’s vision, but it also refers to Carl’s physical and mental journey. Carl goes through hell (keep your eye out for the dreaded “sweatbox”), and emerges stronger. The author is so good at descriptives you’ll swear that you’re right beside Carl during his most vulnerable and hair raising moments. It’s a good thing that Devil’s Pocket will be out next week, because you’ll be able to jump right into it after reading this one.