John Dixon’s “Phoenix Island” is a compelling first-in-series novel for many reasons, but perhaps the most prominent is its ability to effectively straddle the adult and young-adult (YA) reading market. I’ve read several YA novels where I was led to believe that the author pulled off this feat, only to discover that the validity of the claim ranged from a bit off the mark to entirely fanciful. That didn’t make them bad books, but they didn’t cross over to the adult market effectively.
This is not the case with “Phoenix Island”. I suspect that I could hand this book off to most of my adult reading friends and they wouldn’t know that they were enjoying a novel that targets a YA market. That said, I further suspect that there would be a gender bias, regardless of age. I don’t think it’s impossible for female readers to enjoy this book, but they’ll be at the thin end of the bell curve. This is a relentlessly action-oriented, testosterone-infused adventure story set in modern times but hearkening back to classic adventure tales.
It’s pretty solidly a man book.
At a breakneck pace, Dixon’s “Phoenix Island” tells the story of Carl Freeman, a troubled teen orphan gripped by an uncontrollable compulsion to physically punish bullies of all types and sizes. And Carl is more than equipped to dole out his particular brand of justice. He’s a highly gifted boxer who holds a national title at the not-so-tender age of 16. But Carl’s taste for high-velocity, bloody justice puts him at odds with law enforcement … often.
As a matter of fact, Carl’s beat down of a high school football team is only the latest of numerous violent encounters that have caused him to transition through a string of foster homes and juvenile detention centers. But, it’s this particular beat down that gets him sentenced to do his time on Phoenix Island, a military-styled juvenile rehabilitation center on an island off the coast of Mexico, where he must stay until he is at least 18 years old.
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.
Over the course of the book, the true nature of Phoenix Island is revealed to Carl. It is less of a juvenile rehab center and more of a prison facility with an intensely sinister end goal embodied in the camp’s megalomaniac leader, the Old Man. Inside all the action, the novel deftly reveals Carl’s backstory and the reasons why he’s so fixated on stopping bullies in their tracks.
The book’s overall premise requires a high degree of belief suspension, but that’s okay. This is an adventure novel. As long as the ride entertains then it’s fine to give the logic centers of your brain a bit of a break and just enjoy it. That said, some of the secondary characters are at times a bit too overblown and cartoonish (perhaps even for an adventure novel). The only real foible that tripped me up as a reader is a single spot where a main character discovers critical information in a way that strains credulity and feels like Dixon needed a shortcut to move the plot forward. It was bothersome, but I got over it.
Parents of YA readers should know that “Phoenix Island” is brutally violent in places. Though, within the odd publishing restrictions of YA fiction, nobody drops F-bombs or any other bad language and there’s no sex. As mentioned earlier, “Phoenix Island” is also the first book in a series, with the next book, “Devil’s Pocket, set for release in early August 2015.
Yes, I’ll review that book as well.
For current readers, though, it means you have precious little time (mere days) to get caught up with this very worthwhile series from John Dixon. And I recommend that you do.
— END —