Review: Death Sentence

Death Sentence. Escape From Furnace 3, by Alexander Gordon Smith. Farrar Straus Giroux. 2011. Review copy from publisher. Sequel to Lockdown and Solitary.

The Plot: The third book of the teenage prison break series, Escape From Furnace, finds Alex and his friends trapped in the underground prison, Furnace Penitentiary. Alex’s second attempt at escape brought him tantalizing close to the outside. His punishment? Alex is turned over to the Infirmary, to become surgically remade into one of the monstrous creatures that police the hallways of Furnace.

At least in Lockdown  and Solitary , Alex had his friends. At least, then, he had hope. At least, then, he had his soul. Now, Alex’s own body and mind will betray him. There are some things worse than death.

The Good: As I explained in my recent review of Solitary, the Escape From Furnace series is best read in order. As a quick recap (and spoilers for the previous two books), in Lockdown, petty criminal Alex was falsely convicted of murder and sent to the Furnace Penitentiary. He attempts to escape, but is caught. Alex is punished in Solitary; but the isolation of the “hole” isn’t enough to break him. Death Sentence begins immediately after Alex’s second failed attempt at escape. Alex thought he knew all the secrets Furnace was hiding. He’s about to find out how much worse it is.

Death Sentence delivers what Furnace fans want: breathless action, deep friendships, and a likable, flawed main character. These books are all quick reads, and are relatively short at under 300 pages each. Or maybe they just seemed like quick reads, because the Escape from Furnace books are the very definition of page-turner. A lot happens, one thing after another, BAM BAM BAM. I’m amazed at how inventive Smith is with finding new and hopeless situations to put Alex in, and then having Alex and his friends brainstorm ways to pull off the impossible.

Alex and his friends manage to pull off some pretty spectacular things, but it’s always within the realm of possibility. As Alex discovers, the gigantic “blacksuits”, gas-masked “wheezers” and brutal, mindless “dogs” and “rats” all used to be teenage prisoners who have been transformed. Part of that transformation includes forgetting who you are, who you were, and becoming cruel, mean, and brutal. Alex’s punishment for two escape attempts? He’s going to be made into one of these monster. It’s a fascinating process to see the combination of science and brainwashing that goes into the transformation, and to see how Alex tries to “remember his name” and not become what he’s being made into.

One reason I adore these books? Alex’s fight is not superman. In Lockdown, he encounters a blacksuit who was a friend who tells him: remember your name. Alex’s accomplishments (and there are many) are impressive but not unbelievable. He isn’t “superhuman”, even after, well, he is made into a superhuman. His friends aren’t just sidekicks with the quick quip, or reminders of his humanity and past. They are integral; they are necessary; they have talents and skills Alex doesn’t have.

If you’ve been wondering, Furnace Penitentiary seems like an awful lot of work and expense for a bunch of juvenile delinquents, Alex finds out more about Alfred Furnace, the man behind both the prison and the experiments. I don’t want to reveal too much, but I will say one word: there are Nazis. I KNOW.

As I’ve cautioned before: be careful with your Internet searching and this series. All five books have been published in the UK already and the UK website contains spoilers.


Review: Solitary

Solitary: Escape From Furnace 2 by Alexander Gordon Smith. Sequel to Lockdown. Farrar Straus Giroux. 2010.

The Plot: At the end of Lockdown, Alex and his friends escaped the underground prison, Furnace, by blowing up a wall and throwing themselves into an underground river.

Alex knew it wouldn’t be easy to escape Furnace. What he didn’t realize was how many dark, bloody secrets Furnace hid, it its underground cells and laboratories. He didn’t realize there could be something worse than recapture.

The Good: Just like Lockdown, the first book in this five-book series, the action is nonstop and breathless. Yes, I think you need to read these books in order. In all honesty, I could easily see these five volumes being printed up in one volume, it’s that type of story. For those who haven’t read Lockdown, Smith provides enough detail to quickly get the reader caught up on what is going on: Furnace is a horrible prison, Alex and his friends have escaped, prisoners are the subjects of terrible surgeries and experiments that turn them into monstrous creatures, “rats,” “dogs, “wheezers,” “blacksuits,” whose only purpose is to cruelly control the prison population. Got it? Good. Actually, not very good for those who have to live it.

Solitary is full of action. As the title implies, Alex is ultimately caught and thrown into the “hole,” solitary confinement. Smith can even make solitary confinement action packed. Alex is not the sort of person to sit quietly and contemplate his lot in life. He’s someone who acts rather than reflects. Even when he is forced to, well, think about what he’s done and why he ended up in a place like Furnace, those dreams and memories aren’t quiet and low-key.

Oh, Alex. As you may remember, Alex was a criminal, just not a murderer. He was framed for the crime that brought him to Furnace. One thing that is admirable about him is that he does not deny his actions and his past: “I’m not a good person. . . . I stole from the people I loved, and took the things that meant the most to them.” Even as Alex owns his past and his actions, there is sympathy for him. Furnace is a hell that no one deserves. Here in this immoral place, Alex faces hard moral choices and makes the “right” decisions, or, rather, the least “wrong” one. He’s not perfect, but as his actions show, he isn’t as bad as he thinks.

Given the harsh subject of the book (teens are imprisoned and turned into monsters), it’s a bit odd for me to say this is a fun series but it is. First, it’s never overly gory; there is just enough detail shared to know what’s going on, to know what is being done to the boys, to understand their hardships, without it being over the top. Second, whatever the boys did to get sent to Furnace, what’s being done to them is so much worse that they are  heroes you can cheer. The tight bonds they form with each other add to it; as I mentioned in my review of the first book, Alex isn’t afraid of his emotions. He isn’t afraid to be afraid; he isn’t afraid to cry. He just doesn’t let those emotions get in the way of his goal: Escape From Furnace.

All five volumes are already available in the UK. If you do not like spoilers, do not look this series up on the Internet! Do not even look at the titles for the next volumes