Double Review : Phoenix Island & Devil's Pocket by John Dixon

I normally wouldn't have picked up a book like Phoenix Island. Or the sequel, Devil's Pocket. These are usually the kind of books that skip my radar. Which is why the reader-feed from Netgalley is definitely a blessing.

Devil's Pocket was released on Aug 4th and we're dragged headlong back into the brutal raw world of  Carl Freeman where violence is a way of life - first introduced with the phenomenally well written Phoenix Island. So I first got hold of Devil's Pocket and then the good folks at Simon and Schuster (Gallery Books imprint) were giving away Phoenix Island for a lark ($1.99 e-book sale) and I jumped for it. While the first book is the inspiration behind the CBS Show, Intelligence ( I admit I haven't seen that one), the sequel is prime material for a summer blockbuster. A darkly intelligent and ruthlessly violent version of Fight Club perhaps?

Pitched as an action blast with YA crossover appeal featuring a 16-year old protagonist, Phoenix Island introduces us to the willful and extremely stubborn Carl Freeman, junior boxing champion and orphan - who has got into one fight too many and is now sentenced to serve out the next two years in the isolated Phoenix Island -a sort of military boot camp for juvenile delinquents. The Island however is a completely different deal than what Carl hoped for. While he meets other juvenile delinquents here, all of them orphans like himself - as the days goes by and the training gets more intense and ruthless, there are secrets about the camp that are dark and guarded.

A chance discovery of a diary left behind by a previous orphan leads to dark secrets spilling out. While Carl does make friends at the camp, his enemies are too many. Including a deranged drill-sergeant who is out to 'nail' Carl and the recruits in his own batch, mean bullies out baying for his blood. And standing up for the meek has always been Carl's weakness. When one incident gets out of hand - with Carl finally deciding to throw caution to the air and literally letting it fly with his fists, things take a turn for the ugly and sinister. He is beaten up badly and thrown into the 'Sweat Box'. And when Stark - the deranged head of the Phoenix Island training facility finally takes Carl under his own wings - things spin the way of ugly and skull-splitting dangerous.

Phoenix Island while has a teen protagonist for a lead, is riddled with violence and blistering action that is just raw and bloody brutal. It is clear that this is perhaps a homage of sorts by John Dixon to the Lord of the Flies - but amp up LOTF a hundred-fold on the grim and hopelessness front, then throw in tonnes of knuckle-splitting non stop action and wrap it up with horror, coming-of-age and a smattering of science-fiction. You get halfway there in terms of describing Phoenix Island.

Personally for me, this book was a blast. It introduced me to Carl - whose wildly resourceful nature and never-say-die attitude armed with oodles of spunk and fortitude makes him a great lead to root for. Stuck in a terrifying island in the middle of nowhere surrounded by hammerhead sharks, the land covered by a canopy of jungle infested with creepy crawlies and left to the mercy of mad deranged lunatics who do not hesitate to maim or kill you for the slightest slip-up: Imagine a sixteen year old facing up such odds. It's terrifying and enough to make you mad with the grim hopelessness of such a situation. But the way Carl deals with these adversities, fights for his friends' and his own life and finally makes it through alive - the whole experience is like being stuck inside a cage while getting battered in a bare-knuckled slug-fiesta. Just like Carl, you long to get to the end of this nightmare.

The writing is top notch - paced to perfection with all stops pulled out and bringing the whole hellish experience alive. John Dixon himself is a boxer and the fight scenes were a rush of blood to the head, authentic and blisteringly brutal. Carl's exhausting journey - both mental and physical is a tale of blood, guts and glory - and John's kept it extremely entertaining throughout.

While the main focus in terms of characters are Carl and in the latter half, Stark - the sinister antagonist in charge of the camp - there are other smaller characters like Octavia ( the girl interest, albeit a weaker plotline, she forms an important pivot for the whole narrative) and Ross (Carl's friend, an orphan as well who cannot help himself from cracking jokes about anything) who stand out.  The first book is a winner of the Bram Stoker award and lights up the way for John Dixon's career - with Carl and his future.

Devil's Pocket ups the ante of the bleak hopelessness and mindless violence, if that were possible. While the sequel isn't as sharp as Phoenix Island, people who loved the first book will have plenty to cheer about in this book as well. The entertainment factor never dims.

When you thought the setting couldn't get any more bizarre than Phoenix Island, John goes ahead and gives us The Volcano and the Funeral Games. A sort of sporting extravaganza set deep inside a volcano sponsored and run by a sinister set of people called The Few. While I still love Stark for his deranged vision and being that tour-de-force on Phoenix Island running his Phoenix Force Troops around the world, The Few are still a formidable enough bunch of foes. Carl is now almost a free man - having gained Stark's interest - but the tests never stop coming. He is now packed off to the Funeral Games along with Agbeko, Davis and new guy Tex - to compete on behalf of the Phoenix Island. Life is cheap at this win or die boxing competition and Carl has a tough time just surviving - both inside the ring and outside of it.

John builds up the mystery around the Few, while keeping the suspense on a knife-edge about the various rounds of boxing competition. It's still knuckle breaking raw and mindlessly brutal. He brings back Octavia - with her mind-reading capabilities of mapping out faces under masks and psychic ability to sense future and the dangers associated - but frankly for me, Octavia was much of a wash-out. The romance still hasn't blossomed out fully - and sometimes during the book, it is hard to remember that Carl is still just a teenager. But yes, he still remains the main draw for why you should read this book - A true shining star still seeped in his own sensibilities of right, wrong, justice and hope. The others in the team, Agbeko and Davis also have their own tales of misery written in blood and tears to tell.

A very strong follow up to the Phoenix Island, this is yet another winner from the John Dixon stable. Tautly paced, extremely well written and terrifyingly atmospheric, Devil's Pocket gives us back our tough as nails teenager Carl Freeman in roaring form, baptized in blood and violence up against another set of terrible foes.


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