"Phoenix Island" Book Review
Written by John Dixon
2014, 320 pages, Fiction
Released on January 7th, 2014
I've always had a thing for adventure narratives where I find myself relating to the protagonist. Sadly, great adventure novels that appeal to me, satisfy my craving for solid writing, and are entertaining from beginning to end are hard to come by, so I stopped looking. When I landed John Dixon's Phoenix Island (not really, it came in the mail, but you know what I'm saying), I read the back cover and decided to give it a chance. Two chapters later I was hooked, and I stayed that way until the last page.
Sixteen-year-old Carl Freeman is a good guy, but his good intentions often translate to violence, and his boxing skills take that violence to the next level. Despite that fact that he always beats bullies, his long list of problems and the fact that he has moved from foster home to foster home finally lands Carl in front of a judge who decides to send him to a "terminal facility" in a place called Phoenix Island. When no one can deal with young, orphaned delinquents, they're sent to this land mass off the coast of the United States. The place is like a boot camp, but there are no rules, there's no contact with the outside world, and the program is run by a group of sadistic drill sergeants who show no mercy to their young, orphan trainees and have no qualms about dishing out physical punishment. Carl is sentenced to stay at the camp until his eighteenth birthday. He plans to play by the rules, leave his past behind, and not get into the type of situation that landed him there. He befriends Ross, his bunkmate and a bit of a comedian, and a girl named Octavia, but he makes more enemies than friends and soon keeping a low profile is almost impossible. After things escalate, Carl starts to unveil the mysteries of Phoenix Island, and the knowledge brings punishments and then a new opportunity, a chance at being someone different but still the same.
Phoenix Island is a fun, fast-paced, entertaining read. It's an adventure narrative that borrows the best elements of survival stories and throws in a bit of science fiction along with a tad of humor and some very nicely written violence. Dixon is a talented author and knows how to move the story in ways that keep it engaging, which is easier to do on a 100-page novella than on a 300+-page novel. Last but not least, Carl is a likeable character and his intentions are always positive, which makes it even easier to side with him from the start of the story.
Besides likeable characters and great pacing, Dixon delivers something else that makes Phoenix Island a recommended read: a good dose of brutality. Sure, the lack of profanity and sex turn the book into one that would not be out of place in the hands of a young adult, but the fights, along with creepy doctor running a place called the Chop Shop, the martial arts training, the abuse, and a few scenes involving sharks and wild hogs help this tale border on full-blown horror at times.
There's a lot to like in Phoenix Island, but I'd be dishonest if I left its one shortcoming out of this review. The bullies/terrorists comparison that Dixon brings to the table time and again becomes tiresome. Once or twice would've been fine, but it should've stopped there.
A lot of action, an interesting science fiction concept, a good protagonist, the possibility of a sequel, and an isolated island with plenty of dangerous forest and animals add up to an enjoyable, appealing read. Also, considering this is Dixon's debut novel, Phoenix Island, which inspired the CBS series Intelligence, marks the arrival of an author fans of action-packed stories should keep on their radar.
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