Review: Escape From Furnace: Lockdown by Alexander Gordon Smith
Beneath heaven is hell. Beneath hell is Furnace. Furnace Penitentiary. The world’s most secure prison for young offenders, buried a mile beneath the earth’s surface. One way in, no way out. Once you’re here, you’re here until you die, and for most of the inmates that doesn’t take long - not with the sadistic guards and the bloodthirsty gangs. Convicted of a murder he didn’t commit, sentenced to life without parole, 'new fish' Alex Sawyer knows he has two choices: find a way out, or resign himself to a death behind bars, in the darkness at the bottom of the world. Only in Furnace, death is the least of his worries. Soon Alex discovers that the prison is a place of pure evil, where creatures in gas masks stalk the corridors at night, where giants in black suits drag screaming inmates into the shadows, where deformed beasts can be heard howling from the blood drenched tunnels below. And behind everything is the mysterious, all-powerful warden, a man as cruel and as dangerous as the devil himself, whose unthinkable acts have consequences that stretch far beyond the walls of the prison. Together with a bunch of inmates - some innocent kids who have been framed, others cold-blooded killers - Alex plans the prison break to end all prison breaks. But as he starts to uncover the truth about Furnace’s deeper, darker purpose, Alex’s actions grow ever more dangerous, and he must risk everything to expose this nightmare that's hidden from the eyes of the world.
About 18 months ago I made a huge mistake. I didn't know it at the time, but I certainly do now. I guess I'm only human but I am still a little disappointed with myself. What did I do? I took a quick glance at a copy of Alexander Gordon Smith's Furnace: Lockdown, didn't read the blurb fully, and assumed that it was just a story about an innocent boy being locked away in prison, and everything that entailed. Sort of a Prisoner Cell Block H for young adults. I've never been a huge fan of claustrophobic prison books/films/TV series (except for the amazing Shawshank Redemption) so with a huge To Be Read pile (and this was long before I started this blog) I didn't think to give it a closer look. This meant I did not spot the sinister looking gasmask wearing figures on the cover (hey... they are pretty small and not exactly a focal point). I didn't spot the line in the blurb that read "scarred, twisted and hungry for blood". I didn't read (I now discover to be) one of the best YA books for boys that was published in 2009.
Over the last six months or so I have heard several people mention this series, most recently my friend Liz from the My Favourite Books blog, but with so many books to read, and so little time to do so, it was still looking unlikely that I would ever pick it up, or at least not in the foreseeable future. Until that is I received an email, out of the blue, from the author's US publicist, informing me that they were about to release Escape FromFurnace: Lockdown in paperback in the USA, he had read (and loved) my blog and would I like a copy? Rarely one to turn down the offer of a free action-packed YA title that I have heard is cracking I said an immediate "yes please", a reply that may just have sounded a little too excited as I had just seen the cover design for the US paperback edition (the photo at the start of this post). What a fantastic cover - if I had seen this book cover in that shop 18 months ago I would have picked it up and bought it immediately. On balance I tend to prefer UK covers over US covers, but definitely not in this case.
If you haven't discovered this series yet then please don;t wait any longer and end up regretting it like I do. And this message goes out to all my US readers as well. This book is nothing short of brilliant. It is fast-paced. It is frantic. It has cliff-hanger chapter end after cliff-hanger chapter end. It is a cracking thriller, with some great horror - lashings of bloody, violent, terrifying horror. It has a great voice, in the form of narrator Alex, a not-so-nice teen who has been involved in bullying, theft, breaking and entering, but nothing overly violent, and then one night he and his friend break into a seemingly deserted home and the next thing he knows Alex is witnessing his friend being shot in the head, and Alex is being framed for the murder. Due to a summer of gang violence some years before, the goverment takes a very hard line on teen crime now, and the sentence is invariably life imprisonment in Furnace, a prison built deep under the ground. But this is no ordinary prison - it is staffed by the same hulking brutes that framed Alex, as well as the ghastly looking gasmasked Wheezers. To say much more about these would risk spoling the delightful horrors in store for you when you read this book.
There is more to this book than just the horror and the action though. Without ever being in-your-face moralistic, it is also about a young man looking back over the course his life has taken so far, spotting the moment when it all started to go wrong, and regretting the actions he took as he got in with the wrong crowd. There are moments of genuine kindness shown in the most desperate of situations, and highlights the importance of friendship and loyalty. You really will run the gamut of emotions when reading this book, as you share Alex's despair, his anger, his hope and his terror. The book ends on something of a cliffhanger but in this case I do not mind one little bit - I have been left salivating for more and intend to start on Solitary at the weekend.
Furnace: Lockdown was released in paperback in the UK in March 2009, and in the US in August 2010 (as the Escape From Furnace series). In the UK there have so far been two more books in the series, entitled Solitary and Death Sentence, the former of these two scheduled to be released in paperback in the US in December, with Death Sentence following in 2011. The fourth book in the series is about to hit stores in the UK in October, and is called Fugitives. Alexander Gordon Smith is appearing at the Crystal Palace Children's Book Festival on 23rd October and is now part of the soon-to-be imfamous Chainsaw Gang. I guess I had better make sure I catch up with the series before then. My thanks go to Wes at FSG in the US for his kind words about my blog, and more importantly for helping me to rectify a huge mistake in my life by sending me this book to read.