Thursday, January 16, 2014

Out of This World: PHOENIX ISLAND by John Dixon

Since my own YA novel debuts this year, I've decided to read (and review) as many debuts as I can. I'm starting out with John Dixon's science fiction/action adventure novel PHOENIX ISLAND, which released January 7. Here goes!

Sixteen-year-old Carl Freeman’s a tough kid from the streets of Philadelphia. Orphaned as a pre-teen and bounced around from state to state, foster home to foster home, Carl can’t seem to stop himself from jumping into fistfights, where his training as a boxer makes him a particularly dangerous opponent. But then a judge sentences him to Phoenix Island, a military-style boot camp and “terminal facility” for troubled teens. This is Carl’s last chance: wash out on Phoenix Island, and prison awaits. Carl is determined not to let that happen, so he vows to tough out the crazy rules, the less-than-savory companions, and the endless abuse his sadistic drill sergeant heaps on him.

But then he discovers the truth about Phoenix Island. And it’s a lot worse than he ever dreamed.

I loved this debut sci-fi action-adventure by author John Dixon (himself a Philadelphia native and former boxer). The writing is fast-paced, the characters (especially Carl and his one buddy on Phoenix Island, the comedic Ross) well-drawn and sympathetic, and the revelation of Phoenix Island’s dark secrets riveting. I especially appreciated Dixon’s keen eye for detail, particularly in fight scenes, where he draws on his background in boxing to make the action utterly believable:

He’s a southpaw, Carl reminded himself, seeing Parker advance with his right foot forward, and he’s had just enough training to do everything a southpaw is supposed to do. He would fight with his right foot forward and try to nail Carl with a straight left hand, maybe a right hook. All I have to do is keep my lead foot outside his lead foot, and I’ll eat him alive. If Parker came at him like that, looking to land the big left, Carl could just quarter-pivot, and Parker would turn and chase him and run into Carl’s straight right.

As I've mentioned on this blog before, writers in the sci-fi genre are sometimes too eager for the knockout blow to nail the small details, and that casts an aura of falsity over the whole. That’s never a worry in Phoenix Island, and so, when the book introduces science fiction elements, they never strain the reader’s credulity. Believable unbelievability, I’d call it, and Dixon does it right.

If I have one reservation about Phoenix Island, it has to do with the character of Octavia, a female inmate on Phoenix Island who seems less well developed than she could be, more the obligatory romantic interest than a fully-rounded character. Having her perspective in the book does, however, enable Dixon to heighten the tension in the final act with some expert cross-cutting.

Phoenix Island, in case you didn’t know, provided the basis for the TV series Intelligence. I haven’t seen the show (who has time for TV?), but if it’s anything like its source material, it’s a heart-pounding ride!

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