Lockdown (Escape from Furnace Book 1)
by Alexander Gordon Smith
Square Fish (2011)
Prison is no picnic, even if you're a young offender. But compared to Furnace, the prison for young boys concocted by A. Gordon Smith's imagination, youth detention centers in the western world are downright idyllic. In Smith's novel, Lockdown, an alarming spike in violent crimes by young gangs in England prompts the government to crack down and green-light the construction of a prison specifically designed to house teen boys. And every day since has displayed zero tolerance towards young offenders. And in Alex Sawyer's case, he learns you don't even have to be guilty to get locked up.
Alex is a reprobate, he'll admit to that. Before winding up in Furnace, he was a bully and a thief, but he did not murder his best friend. No, that was the work of black-clad henchmen with ungodly strength and malevolent demeanor--and uncanny knowledge about Alex. It turns out they are employees of Furnace and their job is to ensure the prison maintains a steady supply of prisoners. It doesn't matter if the boys are innocent, since the public at large distrusts city youth so much. So Alex gets framed for murder and is banished to the bowels of the most notorious and feared prisons ever built. The world sees only a fortress built on top of solid rock, but beneath the impenetrable surface is a man-made chasm for young criminals.
If you think this novel is out to shine a spotlight on the injustices levied on the innocent, and how one kid can fight the system from the inside, think again. It's made pretty clear from the outset that there is no appeal process or fighting the system from the inside. Alex has no rights, no life, no hope. All he has left is a lifetime in Furnace in which his daily mission is to survive. And with the gang that's been in there since the prison's inception putting him in their sites, that's not going to be easy.
Furnace feels less like an actual prison than a living Hell. An underground Terrordome for boys might not be the most believable premise, but Smith lends enough credence to the situation to suspend disbelief. Plus, the horror elements give the story an otherworldly vibe. It's pretty difficult to imagine such a prison in our world, but it becomes really easy to imagine a world in which it does exist. As for life in the prison, there are moments that feel unflinchingly real, but there are other moments that seem to strain credulity. The gang of boys that's been there since the prison opened--the very gang responsible for so much of the violence that led to the prison's construction--are vicious, but they fade into the background until their presence is needed to provide extra tension. I'd imagine a gang like that would be much more tyrannical if left to their own devices, as the guards only seem to care about making sure the boys toil away through the day and stay in their cells at night.
The friendships and alliances Alex builds are the heart of the story, in my opinion, and really had me rooting for them as they try to survive and even try to find a way out of Furnace. But this book blatantly leaves things hanging in mid-air at the end. I have found I am less and less appreciative of cliffhangers in books. And considering there are three books in this series--maybe more--I have to wonder if the next book, Solitary, will have a similar type of ending.