The whole world has become a prison, and Alfred Furnace is its master. Monsters rule the streets, beasts of pure fury that leave nothing but murder and madness in their wake. Those who do not die are turned, becoming slaves to Furnace’s reign of cruelty. It is a war to end all wars, one that will leave the planet in ruins. I am a monster too. I am one of Alfred Furnace’s children. And I am the only one who can stop him. I have to find a way to use my powers to destroy Furnace, but in doing so I risk becoming the very force that kills us all. I don’t know if I am the executed or the executioner. I don’t know who will die: me, Furnace or the entire human race. All I know is that one way or another, it all ends today.
Warning: this review may very well contain spoilers for earlier books in the series! If I do let something important slip then please believe me when I say that it won't be deliberate, but I love this series so much I may get carried away.
Last September I wrote a review of Lockdown, the first book in Alexander Gordon Smith's totally brilliant Furnace series (or Escape From Furnace as it is known in the US). I mentioned that this was a series that I had pretty much ignored, as I somewhat stupidly thought it was a straight prison drama. How wrong could I be? The moment I read Lockdown I was completely hooked - this was teen horror at its very best, and since then I have devoured the other books in the series, culminating in Execution, the final book in the series, which was released in the UK back in March. Every book in the series up to this had been of an exceptional quality, and this final instalment was no exception: superbly written, breathtakingly scary at times, and most importantly it brings the series to a very fitting end. No loose ends, no "I can't believe he did that" moments, just perfection..... almost! (and I will say more of this later).
Book four in the series, Fugitives, saw Alex and his friends finally manage to escape from their living nightmare in Furnace Penitentiary, only to find themselves hounded on all sides as they tried to take shelter in the nearby city. The author had excelled at writing nailbiting scenes of great tension and explosive action, all in the claustrophobic confines of the subterranean prison, and the moving of the story into the open city gave him free reign to up the action scenes to a new high. Execution starts at the moment that the previous book ended. However, Alex's victory is shortlived, as he is captured and sedated by the authorities, only to wake up strapped to a bed in some kind of cell. You thought Warden Cross was a nasty piece of work? Now say hello to Colonel Alice Panettierre, a woman so singleminded about her ambitions that she will let no-one and nothing stand in her way. Somehow he has to escape from this new prison, find and save his friends, work out where Alfred Furnace is holed up, make his way there whilst evading the constant and violent pursuit of Panettierre and the forces at her command, and still have the energy and strength to defeat the man he sees as the devil incarnate. An impossible task? Fans of this series will know that this will not be an easy journey for Alex, and there are likely to be casualties on both sides before the book's climax, as Smith made it clear right from book one that he was not afraid to kill off popular characters if the story demanded it.
Despite the high quality of storytelling, the outstanding action scenes and the gloriously gory moments, for me the real key to the brilliance of these books is Alex's character. This is a boy who has been framed for murder and then incarcerated in a place worse than hell where he has been experimented on to the point where is now more monster than human, and yet the author's skill in creating this character means that as readers we can't help but like Alex immensely, even when he it looks as if he might be about to cross over to the dark side. Somehow, Alex still manages to retain a degree of humanity that makes his pursuers seem like wild animals. The other key characters that have accompanied Alex on his journey are also a hugely important factor in making these books so enjoyable - they bring humour when a particularly dark moment needs to be lightened; they add to the tension when the going gets tough and it seems as if there is no way they will all survive; and they also contribute to a moment of great sadness at the end of the story which may just bring a few tears to your eyes.
I said earlier that the ending was almost perfection. When I read the book I thought that the author had ended it brilliantly, but on turning the final page I discovered an end note with a web link to an epilogue to the story. Although the link wasn't working at the time I emailed Alexander Gordon Smith to tell him how much I had enjoyed the series and he very kindly email it to me. It was with some small amount of trepidation that I decided to read it, as I had after all really enjoyed the book's ending, but I am glad I did as it really does make the ending to the story perfect in my mind. The epilogue is now online but I'm not going to send you the link - read the book first and then go and look for it.
Only discovering these books in September 2010 meant that I had the luxury of reading the whole series with only short breaks between books, and if I have the time I intend to read the whole series again, back-to-back, sometime over the next twelve months. Impatient readers can dip into the series at any point as the author starts each book off with a chapter detailing the events of the previous book, but if you do this then you are doing yourself a great disservice - this is a series that must be read in order! Fans of Alexander Gordon Smith will probably be as ecstatic as me at the news that he has a new book due out with Faber next year. Titled The Fury, I have been reliably informed by AGS that it is a "pretty relentless, gory thriller" - brilliant!
My thanks go to the generous people at Faber for sending me a copy of Furnace: Execution. In the US the Furnace books are published with some incredible book covers by Farrar Straus Giroux (an imprint of MacMillan US), and the third book in the series, Escape From Furnace: Death Sentence is scheduled to be released on 2nd August over there. Just look at these covers:
Sadly, my favourite design of the whole series did not make it as a final design, but I want to show it to you anyway. How creepy is this?