ARC Review: Phoenix Island by John Dixon

18143994Rating: 4/5
Genres: Young Adult, Thriller, Action, Mystery
Release Date: January 7, 2014
Publisher: Gallery Books
Number of pages: 320
Source: ARC from Netgalley
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A champion boxer with a sharp hook and a short temper, sixteen-year-old Carl Freeman has been shuffled from foster home to foster home. He can’t seem to stay out of trouble, using his fists to defend weaker classmates from bullies. His latest incident sends his opponent to the emergency room, and now the court is sending Carl to the worst place on earth: Phoenix Island.

Classified as a terminal facility, it’s the end of the line for delinquents who have no home, no family, and no future. Located somewhere far off the coast of the United States and immune to its laws, the island is a grueling Spartan-style boot camp run by sadistic drill sergeants who show no mercy to their young, orphan trainees. Sentenced to stay until his eighteenth birthday, Carl plans to play by the rules, so he makes friends with his wisecracking bunkmate, Ross, and a mysterious gray-eyed girl named Octavia. But he makes enemies, too, and after a few rough scrapes, he earns himself the nickname “Hollywood” as well as a string of punishments, including a brutal night in the sweatbox. But that’s nothing compared to what awaits him in the Chop Shop: a secret government lab where Carl is given something he never dreamed of.

A new life. . . .

A new body. A new brain.

Gifts from the fatherly Old Man, who wants to transform Carl into something he’s not sure he wants to become.

For this is no ordinary government project. Phoenix Island is ground zero for the future of combat intelligence.

And for Carl, it’s just the beginning. .


Okay, I admit it. The unimpressive cover aside, Phoenix Island hooked me line and sinker with its blurb that just screams Danger! Conspiracies! Evil governments! Kids running for survival! Underdog Triumphing All! Bootcamp of doom! You see, my insatiable thirst for these themes all started with a particular manga called Deadman Wonderland, where a group of people (some kids) are put into a shady government facility for their crimes. One of these people is a young boy who was falsely accused of murdering his classmates, and when he was placed in this institution, he quickly found out it was also a carnival where people watch prisoners compete in games – games where one wrong move will lead to your impalement or death or being shark food… among many (terrible) others. I know, it sounds pretty horrible, but these are not what I loved this manga for. What I loved about this manga was how a lone young man, who was seen as weak by many, found the courage and the determination to pave a path for himself against a strong current despite all odds. I loved the feeling of rooting for a character and feeling absolute joy when you see him or her succeed the challenges that come their way, that anxiousness when you see them encounter a harder one.

I guess that’s why Phoenix Island resonated with me so much. It may not have games of hell where if you move one inch to the left, that huge axe attached to the ceiling may decapitate you, but like Deadman Wonderland, it features a cast trapped in a government facility with seemingly no means of escape. They only have themselves to rely on. That, and their very resolve.

Carl Freeman, a sixteen-year-old boxer, is considered a delinquent with no home to go back to. He has transferred from foster home to foster home, all because he dared try to help victims from bullies with his fists. When he finally sent a bully to the Emergency Room, the judicial system saw him fit to join other delinquents in a terminal facility called Phoenix Island. When Carl gets there, he quickly realizes that there is more to this facility that what meets the eye – beyond the drills, beyond the soldiers physically, verbally, and psychologically abusing them, and beyond the seemingly simple principles of the leader known as “The Old Man”.

I liked the main character. Carl was far from perfect (short temper, can be carried away by his emotions easily), but you could truly see he’s a good guy at heart. Early in the book, we get to know about his tragic past especially regarding his parents as well as his urges to help those who are weak – acts of justice which at the same time got him in trouble, leading us to feel for and sympathize with him. Many times in the book he was belittled and jeered at by his peers and by certain soldiers, and many times, he willed himself to  not react, to take it all in, to endure because the stakes were high, to take the beating so that others won’t. I admit many times I felt frustrated, because come on man, you have the power to cut these bitches apart! … but at the same time I felt proud he stood his ground. He was hot-tempered, that much was true, but when it mattered the most, he knew what to do even if it meant putting his life on the line. I admired his determination and his resolve, and suffice to say, he made the book work for me.

He knew what he had to do.

He had to break his pattern of weakness.

He had to start keeping his promise to his father.

He had to stop fighting the bullies and start helping the victims.

He had to defend, not destroy.

Love, not hate.

The other characters, Ross and Octavia, were interesting, too. Ross, I was especially proud and fond of. He was the real underdog between the three – physically weak, small, and thin, but he probably has the biggest heart. Despite having so many disadvantages and knowing the consequences, he stood up for his friends and fought for them. Octavia, the love interest, was pretty meh to me. She was a strong character, but I felt she could’ve used a little more polishing.

Aside from Carl and Ross, another thing I really liked about this book was the awesome action scenes. Come on, guys, be honest – we don’t see a lot of authors who could write a long action scene and make them bloody good, exciting, and most of all, not repetitive. Thankfully, Dixon delivered and made me shiver in excitement. Man, I’ve lost count of the times I squealed in glee (and trepidation) because all the fighting happening in the book was so good. It was realistic, it was brutal, it was bloody, and you don’t know if the hero and friend will come out alive at all. I think that’s a testament of its greatness.

What I didn’t really appreciate was the one dimensional of some of the antagonists. Sergeant Parker a.k.a. enemy number one, was too simple in his… evilness. Yeah, he made life hell for the protagonists, threw insults that could even make cold-hearted people cry, but damn… he was evil just for the heck of it. Despite being there majority of the time, there was no depth in him and we were never given an explanation why he acts the way he does. Stark, on the other hand… I’m not sure I’d call him complex. He was interesting yet he was kind of boring, too, but only because I’ve seen his kind many times before in other books and video games. “I’m here to purge the world of the weak, for they are the ones that bring us down! We, the strong, shall remain and pave the world towards a new, brighter, better era!” yada yada yada… it was kind of disappointing as I was hoping for something new.

But nevertheless, overall, it was enjoyable. There are a lot of twists and exciting scenes that will surely keep everyone at the edges of their seats! I reckon people who enjoyed Lord of the Flies will also enjoy this one.

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A 21 years old Filipina who loves books, games, languages, and most especially, food. Secretly wishes to be an astronaut so she can explore the stars. Has a love-hate relationship with Philippine politics. To get in her good graces, offer her Foie Gras, Or shrimp. Or a JRPG. A YA sci-fi book works, too. You can follow her on twitter here: @kawaiileena


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  1. says

    Great review! I really liked that Carl became aware of his faults and focused on trying to overcome them instead of just floundering around and ultimately being destroyed by them like so many protagonists (Romeo-style). As the story progresses he tries to think before acting and channels his anger into something more productive. I agree that Parker was one dimensional- hadn’t thought of Stark as being so until I read your review but I think you are right.
    Allison recently posted…Juvenile Delinquents, Boxing, and the Sweatbox- Review of Phoenix Island by John DixonMy Profile