Title: Furnace: Lockdown
Author: Alexander Gordon-Smith
Genre: YA (horror)
Publisher: Faber’s Children’s Books
Publishing Date: 5 March 2009
Paperback: 304 pages
Stand Alone or series: First book in a planned trilogy. Book two is called Furnace: Solitary and book 3 is Furnace: Death Sentence (to be published in October)
Why did I read the book: I met Alexander Gordon Smith in London at Forbidden Planet’s Guillermo del Toro signing. He was SO passionate about his books and they sounded so cool that I just had to buy a copy.
Summary: Furnace Penitentiary: the world’s most secure prison for young offenders, buried a mile beneath the earth’s surface. 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. Except in Furnace, death is the least of his worries. Soon Alex discovers that the prison is a place of pure evil, where inhuman 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 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 an escape. 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.
Britain – some point in the future (when there is an Indiana Jones 5 movie. Oh noes), a few years after the Summer of Slaughter when teenage gangs went totally locos on a killing spree, resulting in a new society with draconian measures against teenage misbehaviour.
In this zero –tolerance estate of affairs, any teenage that commits murder is sent to the Furnace. A high security prison, located one mile beneath the surface, with only one entrance and no way out. Once there, you are there for life with absolutely no contact with the exterior world, no right to visits and no parole.
Enter Alex Sawyer, our 14 year old protagonist. His opening words bear a portent of things to come:
“I can tell you the exact moment that my life went to hell”
but also a sense of self-consciousness that is necessary for the bonding between this guy who is at first, an irresponsible bully, a burglar; and the reader. He is fully aware of his bad choices which land him in a nightmarish situation, partly because of his own stupid actions. Beginning with a burglary gone terribly wrong, Alex ends up being framed by the murder of his best friend and sent to Hell – or rather, to Furnace. And it is in there, that we realise that it does not matter what Alex has done , it doesn’t matter what any of these kids have done, they should not be sent to a place like Furnace.
Furnace: Lockdown is a roller coaster of emotions, a stress-fest, from the moment Alex is framed, judged and condemned, to the journey in the bus to the end of his life, to the elevator ride down, down, down, down the earth. It is bleak, horrible and terribly compelling.
Furnace is a place no one has ever escaped from and the ones who tried did not live long to regret. It is even hard to commit suicide but some find a way to do it. It is claustrophobic (no windows anywhere) , suffocating and the amazing writing from Alexander Gordon Smith is positively effective in making the reader feel as much despair as Alex. In the tradition of the best Prison movies and TV Shows, there are gang fights, lockdowns, sadistic guards – any Prison-related tropes, you name it, it’s there.
Where Furnace: Lockdown diverges from the above is in the age of the people in there – all boys under 18 , some as young as 10. But also, in the almost hellish addition of the shady, dark figure of the Warden who no one can look in the eye, the (hell?)hounds and above all, the nightmarish creatures called Wheezers that wear masks and walk around the corridors at night and that can take the boys away. When they come, silence falls and only the struggle of those taken away against their will can be heard. Those who are picked rarely come back and if they do, oh well. That is another level of hell entirely.
(Part of me did wonder about the fact that this even prison exists in a society like the British society, and how would this be accepted just like that. The Summer of Slaughter must have been a terrifying ordeal but there is not enough information about it in the book, though. Another part of me argued back – yes, I do have conversations with myself – that bad things have happened all over the world not so long time ago (and still today. I can honestly say the Brazilian Penitentiary system is stuff for nightmares) and that unfortunately human beings tend to turn a blind eye to some things. But I digress.)
This is not a book with ponies and rainbows by any means but like any book or story with a similar setting, there’s gotta be a shred of hope somewhere and sympathetic characters to root for. Furnace has its share of them: Alex is an amazing main character and his budding friendship with cell-mate Donovan and Zee, a guy who came down on the same day (who is innocent as well) is a like a beam of light in the darkness. The couple of sequences when they find some speck of joy in the midst of this freaking horror were heartbreaking at the same time that they were heart-warming, possibly because they were heart-warming.
What would any self-respecting book protagonist do? Why, to plan a prison break, obviously. Because soon, it is clear to Alex that to die attempting to escape is better than a lifetime (if he is lucky to survive, mind you) at Furnace. Lunatics they all are, to think that they can do it but not to try is to accept a destiny too abominable to grasp. And my heart was beating like crazy and I am pretty sure that at one moment I was close to a heart attack. I felt fear, I felt despair, I felt hope and an immense affection for Alex and his friends whilst I read this terrific book. It does end on a cliff-hanger and I immediately had to buy Furnace: Solitary, which I did without a moment of hesitation .
Notable Quotes/ Parts – Alex’s first night at Furnace:
It was here,holding the bars of my cell like they were my only friends, that I first heard the symphony of Furnace. It started with the sobs, which rose up out of the darkness all around me like the gentle strings in an orchestra. They began as hushed moans chocked back by the countless musicians that crafted them, merging together from every level to create a fountain of sound that ran down to the deserted yard below.
Next came the jeers, the tuneful taunts of “new fish”, and “you better cry, they’re coming for you” which punctuated the sobbing like sharp blasts from trumpets. As the callous taunts grew in volume so did the cries, swelling into desperate wails hurled out into the artifical night mixed with calls for help and pleas which were heartbreaking to hear. Somewhere, somebody was singing a song, his deep voice a bizarre bassline to the symphony, a mournful cello that kept the two halves of the orchestra in harmony.
I don’t know how l long it went on for, rising gradually to a crescendo of screams and whistles and sobs and songs that took hold of me, forcing a cry from my own traitorous throat. For what I knew would be the first time of many I reluctantly added my voice to that symphony, crying and screaming until, exhausted, the music died and the prison once again found silence.
Additional Thoughts: Lockdown is going to be released in October in the US with a much, MUCH better cover, if you ask me. Which is strange because I generally think that UK covers are better than US ones.
Verdict: This is a really well-written, compelling, gripping roller-coaster of a book. Highly recommended for both boys and girls.
Rating: 8 – Excellent.
Reading Next: Intertwined by Gena Showalter