In the lives of kids, there aren’t many grays. In the case of bullying, there’s usually the bully, the victim and the bystanders – bad, good and indifferent. Young boxing champ and heavy rotation foster kid Carl Freeman is none of the above, having declared himself, thanks to a pact with his late father, a Philadelphia cop, to always protect the weak.
But within the confines of the foster care system and the various public schools Carl is dropped into over the course of his 16 years, his attitude is considered more criminal than heroic. When we meet Carl, his latest episode of vigilante justice has landed him in front of a judge who sentences him to the eponymous boot camp facility located off the Mexico mainland – away from any type of governmental supervision and outside the reach of U.S. child protection laws. There it becomes clear to Carl that something nefarious is being perpetrated by the camp commanders and that the teenage detainees are there for more than just reformation.
It’s with this nicely crafted setup that first-time author (and fellow member of the Brandywine Valley Writers Group) John Dixon begins his novel Phoenix Island (2014, Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster). However, what seems to start out as simply a bit of angst-driven young-adult fiction about one good kid rebelling against all the punk peers and evil adults in his life eventually takes a decidedly sci-fi turn without ever drifting too far into Hunger Games or (god help us all) Twilight territory. It also maintains enough depth of character and real dramatic tension to hold the attention of action-reader adults while keeping things clean enough to be appropriate for tween fiction lovers. In fact, my 10-year-old son got his hands on my copy before I read it and couldn’t stop gushing.*
Dixon uses his own background as a boxer, teacher – in both the juvenile detention system and public schools – and youth services caseworker in crafting a crowd of entirely believable young criminals, malcontents and social outcasts that stand as three-dimensional humans rather than tired stereotypes. In Carl, there’s are more than a few pleasing hints of Paul Newman’s Cool Hand Luke, with enough doses of Philadelphia attitude (Carl hails from South Philly’s Devil’s Pocket neighborhood) to avoid too much similarity.
The appeal of Carl’s battle against injustice is in many ways irresistible to anyone who’s ever been on the business end of a bully, and the fact that he has both the skills as a fighter and the drive to protect the weak makes him a believable hero in both the intricately detailed fight scenes and those moments of quieter introspection.
And speaking of fight scenes, it’s rare that you can read a work of genuine quality that incorporates edge-of-your-seat combat that seems raw and believable at every turn. Dixon’s experience in the ring brings a visceral quality to the moments of physical violence that gives each scene far more depth than what you find in so many staged movie fights.
Though I noted above that the story drifts into the sci-fi realm, this shouldn’t scare off readers who don’t fancy “hard” science fiction or think that the setting will somehow switch to another planet. Things stay firmly rooted on Earth and in the present day, but Dixon takes a number of technological “what ifs” – all of them based on tech currently in development – and spins them into a believable scenario that in no way overwhelms the characters or the very real conflicts they face.
That said, if you’re going into Phoenix Island thinking it will be similar to Intelligence, the CBS TV series it inspired (and which the book is vigorously cross-promoting), you can stop worrying. Having seen a few episodes of the show, I can assure you that the similarities are at best superficial. I expect that at some point the plot of Intelligence (should it last a few seasons) will eventually touch on some back story that might give us flashes of life on Phoenix Island, but right now you can watch one and read the other and live your life relatively spoiler free. The main characters don’t even have the same name, for crying out loud.
* A note to parents and young readers: There are suggestions of potential rape, moments of intense physical violence, and at least one description of a gruesome surgical practice in Phoenix Island. All are appropriate for plot and character development and not thrown in gratuitously. Some of this might fly over the heads of younger readers, and for kids growing up in a PG-13 and Call of Duty-saturated media landscape, it doesn’t push limits that most kids 10 and older haven’t already crossed.