A review of Phoenix Island, by John Dixon
Gallery Books (Simon & Schuster), 2014
by REBECCA, February 5, 2014
Carl Freeman beats up bullies to protect the underdog and it’s landed him in trouble. A foster kid who no one will miss, he’s shipped off to Phoenix Island to be “rehabilitated,” military-style. But Phoenix Island is no rehabilitation; in fact, the people there are like nothing he could have imagined.
“A champion boxer with a sharp hook and a short temper, sixteen-year-old Carl Freeman has been shuffled from foster home to foster home. He can’t seem to stay out of trouble, using his fists to defend weaker classmates from bullies. His latest incident sends his opponent to the emergency room, and now the court is sending Carl to the worst place on earth: Phoenix Island.
Classified as a terminal facility, it’s the end of the line for delinquents who have no home, no family, and no future. Located somewhere far off the coast of the United States and immune to its laws, the island is a grueling Spartan-style boot camp run by sadistic drill sergeants who show no mercy to their young, orphan trainees. Sentenced to stay until his eighteenth birthday, Carl plans to play by the rules, so he makes friends with his wisecracking bunkmate, Ross, and a mysterious gray-eyed girl named Octavia. But he makes enemies, too, and . . . endures a string of punishments. . . . But that’s nothing compared to what awaits him in the Chop Shop: a secret government lab where Carl is given something he never dreamed of.” (Goodreads)
I’m deleting the rest of the blurb because I really, really wish that it didn’t GIVE AWAY the twist of the entire second half of the book. What were they thinking? Anyway, you can read the rest on Goodreads if you want it spoiled for you, but I’d highly recommend reading Phoenix Island without it.
Phoenix Island is John Dixon’s first novel and is the inspiration for CBS’ upcoming show, Intelligence, to which it seems to bear only a passing resemblance, but which I’m still curious to check out. Either way, Phoenix Island is an interesting, fast-paced read and I hope it doesn’t get looked over in the public’s rush to watch Josh Holloway.
The first half of the novel is about the trials and tribulations that Carl faces when he arrives on the island along with a bunch of other end-of-the-liners. Like any good military school, people are expected to follow stupid orders, are denigrated for having individuality, and are generally forced to follow the kinds of rules that would make me go on a killing spree. Carl doesn’t like it there, either. Most of all, he hates Parker, the idiotic drill sergeant who torments anyone who steps out of line, and has taken a particular dislike to Carl, whom he calls Hollywood, seemingly because in expressing an opinion, Carl must be a showboat; ergo, a movie star? Who knows; the guy’s a first-rate toolbag.
What quickly becomes clear to Carl is that Parker and the other powers that be on Phoenix Island can do anything to them, including kill them, and no one will ever know about it. When Carl finds a diary entry from a kid who used to live on the island hidden away, he realizes that he and the other kids are about to begin the next phase of their training—a phase where many of them will die, and some of them will never be the same again. And I’m not going to say anything about what happens after that because, again, I think it’s a real mistake to go into it knowing the plot of the second half.
So, here’s the deal. This is a compelling read with an interesting plot. It’s well-paced and the reveals are done skillfully. However, it is was an extremely frustrating read for me in precisely the same way that being on Phoenix Island is a frustrating experience for Carl: there’s simply no recourse for these poor kids, and no good option. They are living in a world of lose-lose, and for anyone who was lucky enough not to grow up that way, it is infuriating to be forced to occupy a space where every option is a bad one. In fact, I spent a lot of the time while I was reading this book thinking about how incredibly lucky I was not to feel the way Carl and the other orphans (not to mention large numbers of real people) feel. (I also spent a lot of time thinking how awesome it would be to do a compare-contrast read of Phoenix Island and Beauty Queens . . .)
There’s no gaming the system on Phoenix Island; no success that helps you and no failure that saves you. It’s a claustrophobic world of torment exactly like I imagine the military to be. There are a number of scenes that are reminiscent of Lord of the Flies, in that the kids are pitted against one another and choose to sacrifice one another to save themselves instead of attempting to stand together. There is also a bit of Ender’s Game to Phoenix Island, in that Carl is being watched and, despite what I’ve said about there being no gaming the system, he manages to act in a way that brings him to the attention of the one person with the power to take him out of the game—even if that does deposit him smack dab in the middle of another one.
I enjoyed Phoenix Island even when it got gritty and disgusting (like, bugs crawling into wounds, sharks eating corpses, noses smashing disgusting). Dixon, his bio informs me, used to be a Golden Gloves boxer, and his fight scenes are some of the best I’ve read. He manages to capture both the feeling of fighting and it’s strategy in a way that feels very realistic and indicates things about the characters. The plot takes a sharp left in the second half, but this later plot is clearly what we have been leading up to. It’s an interesting choice and the way it plays out looks like it’s gearing up to be the first in a series, so I imagine the later books will balance out the slightly-awkward first versus second half issue of pacing.
The major issue with the novel for me was the lack of character development. Dixon relied on the characters’ actions to communicate nearly everything about them—Carl defends bullies, so he’s our de facto hero, etc.—rather than giving them much internal complexity. His use of third person limited POV doesn’t do him any favors in this regard. For the most part, we follow Carl, but Dixon’s third person isn’t revelatory; rather, it’s mostly factual, so I don’t feel like I know much even about the main character.
The sudden, clumsy intrusion of Octavia’s POV seven chapters into the book exacerbates this problem. It is clearly done out of necessity, as the reader needs to know things that are happening while Carl is elsewhere, but because Octavia’s character isn’t terribly developed and she’s only used as a pair of eyes to see through when Carl’s not around, it is jarring and unsatisfying. It also creates a problem when Carl and Octavia interact because sometimes the narrative voices seems unsure whether to default to Carl’s POV as the majority of the book does or take an opportunity to make it more balanced and go with Octavia so she gets more screen time. Either way, it feels forced and would have worked better if Octavia were at all developed as a character.
The lack of character development puts Phoenix Island firmly in the category of plot-based action story, for me, but it was a solid plot-based action story with just enough perversity to hold my interest. I’m hoping we get some better character development in the rest of the series.
Insignia (Insignia #1), by S.J. Kincaid (2012). Fourteen-year-old Tom Raines trails after his itinerant gambler father, hustling virtual reality game rooms to pay for their hotels. He wants to be important, to be respected, but even his school teacher thinks he’s going nowhere fast. That all changes, though, when a military higher-up recruits Tom to an elite military academy to train him as a strategist for the war (World War III). But in a world run by corporations and microcomputers, how will Tom know what he’s really fighting for? My full review is HERE.
Beauty Queens, by Libba Bray (2011). In some ways the opposite of Phoenix Island—a lot of characterization; a LOT of satire; a LOT of hilarity—Beauty Queens is also about a group of people stuck on an island who must contend with evil overlords who want to change the world for the ahem not-better. My full review is HERE.
procured from: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher (thanks!) in exchange for my honest review. John Dixon’s Phoenix Island is available now.