Second books in series can be dangerous territory for both the reader and writer. All too often, the writer “blows out” all the creative energy in the first book, leaving the second and following books … well … lacking. Considering the exceptionally strong start provided by John Dixon’s “Phoenix Island”, his book two in the young-adult-targeted1 series titled “Devil’s Pocket” (released August 4, 2015 by Gallery Books) could have easily suffered such an anti-climactic fate.
Thankfully, this is not the case.
“Phoenix Island” kicked off the series with a brutal and suspenseful action/adventure story populated by fun and engaging characters (read my “Phoenix Island” review). A troubled teen orphan, Carl Freeman’s quick temper, quicker fists, and overwhelming need to put bullies in their place (most often the emergency room…) gets him sent to Phoenix Island, a military-style youth rehabilitation camp off the Mexican coast that is actually a breeding ground for fanatical, technologically-enhanced super soldiers serving the commander, Stark, in a plot to rule the world.
“Devil’s Pocket” picks up with Carl serving as Stark’s prodigy on Phoenix Island (while secretly plotting to take the “Old Man” down). Between a microchip planted in his brain and nano-bots coursing through his bloodstream, Carl has superhuman strength, stamina, and mental abilities to help him achieve his overt and clandestine goals.
As a test, Stark sends Carl to the Funeral Games, the ultimate underground fight match with a purse of $10 million but also the strong potential to get beaten to death. The remotely-located but lavish Funeral Games are put on to entertain The Few, a small cadre of ultra-rich and powerful elitists who regard the champions traveling from around the world as playthings rather than people.
But Carl doesn’t care about the money, because if he wins then Stark will make him the official second-in-command at Phoenix Island, giving Carl the access he needs to destroy Stark and his operation. Accompanying Carl to the Funeral Games is his good friend Agbeko, an African heavyweight introduced to readers in “Phoenix Island”, as well as Tex, a pompous lightweight fighter with a vicious streak.
Carl’s well-laid plans, though, are complicated by a young trainer/girlfriend named Margarita that accompanies Julio, a Mexican fighter with almost as many secrets and ulterior motives as his girlfriend. Through her interventions, Carl’s ultimate mission grows larger and more difficult by orders of magnitude as he learns more about The Few and their deadly true purpose behind the Funeral Games.
“Devil’s Pocket” is a more complex book than “Phoenix Island” with an even larger cast of characters (some better developed than others) as well as more subterfuge nicely mixed in with tons of compelling action and fight scenes. The overall premise remains outlandish in scope but engaging nonetheless. That’s all part of the successful formula that has yielded great results for other YA book series including “The Hunger Games” and “The Maze Runner”.
Crunch is always hungry. Massive, ruthless, and homeless, he struggles to survive while building a hatred for all around him. He preys on the street’s weakest, while everyone else lies beyond his aimless rage. Until one day he finds a way to punish anyone and everyone. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the way found him … and he has perhaps bitten off more than even he can chew.
Like “Phoenix Island”, “Devil’s Pocket” aims pretty squarely at a male audience, but isn’t out of reach for female readers that seek fiction outside their demographic stereotypes. John Dixon’s own Golden Gloves boxing background plays a larger role in “Devil’s Pocket” with fight scene descriptions that are detailed but not overly technical.
Given the strength of both “Phoenix Island” and “Devil’s Pocket”, I suspect that this book series has the momentum for several more installments in its future. I’d also like to see Carl Freeman’s story moved to the big screen in much the same way as “The Hunger Games” and “The Maze Runner”.2 Both of Dixon’s books are already perfectly plotted for film adaptations.
In “Devil’s Pocket”, John Dixon provides an engrossing thriller with tons of promise for future books. I suspect that the chief complaint leveled at the author is that he’s not writing them fast enough.
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- I’m told that Dixon’s publishers are no longer marketing this series as YA. I can see that. Both “Phoenix Island” and “Devil’s Pocket” have strong YA-to-adult crossover appeal. That said, “Devil’s Pocket” still has many of the trappings of YA fiction. ↩
- “Phoenix Island” loosely inspired the 2014 CBS TV drama “Intelligence” starring Josh Holloway for a single season. By ‘loosely inspired’, I’m saying that the TV series had sweet f*** all to do with Dixon’s novel. A more-faithful adaptation to feature film would be a better fit for this storyline. ↩