by Alexander Gordon Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Lockdown / 978-0-374-32491-9
It's 'Next Sunday A.D.', as they say, and the denizens of our near future have been traumatized by youth and gang violence to the point where 'tough on crime' laws have escalated to throwing youths convicted of murder away for life in a for-profit contractor prison built into a recently discovered underground fissure. Once a prisoner of "Furnace" you are there for life (or, more accurately, death) as there are no appeals, no humanitarian checks on the system, and the families of the convicted boys are rather surprisingly unconcerned with ever seeing them again - and though this premise might seem a bit flimsy, it's pulled off extremely well and the overall effect is incredibly immersive.
During the day, the prisoners are put to work at hard labor (cleaning, cooking, expanding the tunnels of their prison to make room for incoming prisoners), and the afternoons and evenings are spent aimlessly trying to stay out of the way of gang warfare. The actual owners and staff of the prison are themselves exceedingly cruel and bizarre to an almost supernatural extent, and this is where most of the horror hinges. The guards are strong, fast, and sadistic, and spend much of their time in the outside world, murdering troubled teens in order to frame our protagonists and send a steady stream of 'new fish' to the Furnace. Mutilated guard dogs with iron teeth and exposed muscles and sinew are regularly released onto the inmate population, and anyone not safely inside their cell is instantly torn apart by the vicious creatures. Most terrifying of all are the bizarre, twisted man-like creatures that patrol at night - wizened, and doubled-over, they move in fast, shaky jerks, and they breathe laboriously through ancient gas-masks sewn into their flesh. The prisoners they choose as victims are taken away... and never seen or heard from again.
Throughout all this, our narrator Alex manages to survive being dropped into this hellish nightmare, and even finds a few friends. In desperation, he dreams of escape, an escape other than flinging himself off the seventh floor balcony as so many others do. And while there are few punishments worse than that reserved for escape attempts (the last boy to try was publicly mauled by the prison dogs), Alex can think of nothing worse than waiting night after night for the gas-masks to come for him.
I am incredibly impressed with the narrative of "Lockdown". The basic premise is set up quickly and efficiently, and we are dropped into the story with hearts still pounding from the opening hook. The author writes with a superb sense of pacing, and the horrific details of the prison unfold naturally as Alex comes to terms with the daily grind of his new life, and the numb terror that surrounds him. The seemingly supernatural nature of his guards is played carefully; we are never certain if the horrors he witnesses are spiritual in origin or some twisted Nazi-esque science at play, and the uncertainty adds to the overall fright and isolation. Most impressive of all, is Smith's ability to make all the boys somehow sympathetic, despite the fact that most of them are, at least, thieves, murderers, or bullies.
I think "Lockdown" will appeal as a novel to many adolescents, but parents should be warned that there is a lot of violence and horror in this novel. Prisoners routinely beat up each other, and quite a few boys die badly (by dogs, by suicide, by monsters). I am immensely pleased to note, however, that Smith did not include even a hint of sexual violence in this novel, for which I am grateful - any such inclusion, even for 'realism', would have been detrimental to the novel, in my opinion. "Lockdown" does end on a 'to be continued' cliffhanger, which I would normally hate, but I can't hold against a first-time author; and I definitely will be buying the sequel when it's written, to find out what happens to Furnace and its unlucky denizens.
NOTE: This review is based on a free Advance Review Copy of this book provided through Amazon Vine.
~ Ana Mardoll
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