The Escape from Furnace series did something to me. I read it several years ago but I still think about it all the time, and it stands out on my bookshelf as a series to look up to and try to one day be on the same level as.
Alex Sawyer is the prime example of a teenager with a conscience but also a desire to embrace the short-term rewards of greediness. You get the impression he doesn’t have abusive parents or has financial problems but he still walks around stealing classmates’ money and making them feel like trash to make himself feel mightier. But he still feels he’s not enough of a monster to get thrown down into Furnace Penitentiary, a prison built a mile beneath the surface of the Earth, made after a notorious Summer of Slaughter, where so many kids turned to crime that abnormally tighter restrictions were put in place for delinquents or deviants of any sort. Alex still thinks he’s incapable of doing something horrible enough to land him down there, and he’s kind of right. But during one of the biggest examples of a heist-gone-wrong, strange men in gas masks and a giant only known as Moleface shoots Alex’s friend and sidekick Toby in front of him and plants Alex’s fingerprints on the gun. He ends up sentenced just like that to life in prison in Furnace, where you never see the sun or moon again, the air is like you’re sitting in an oven, and the gangs can easily snap your neck if you’re not one night woken up and taken away down with the guards into the bowels of the prison. Alex and Zee, a guy also wrongfully sentenced who was also at his trial, want to somehow escape but Alex’s cellmate Donovan has long abandoned hope, and the more time they’re there, the more they realize he just might be right giving up.
Alexander Gordon Smith made a simple yet genius concept making this prison and having it be the setting for the whole book, with suggestion the setting would linger in future books. Stereotypical fears related to horror movies are zombies, bats, sharks, cackling laughter, stuff you can’t understand or see. But other fears like telling the truth and not being believed, or being disowned by your family, or being locked behind bars, those are also terrifying, and Smith elegantly combined the two to put the fear factor up to 11. This is emphasized as Smith gives us irresistibly brilliant examples of fear; Alex forgetting half the books he’s ever read, all his favourite television shows, forgetting what certain colours are, the idea of spending the rest of his life in a tiny prison cell, never getting to taste real food again.
Smith started writing this book not knowing how or even if Alex and his friends would get out of the prison, and this brought a perfect sense of uncertainty in the book. There were never any winks toward something being important later on for an attempted escape, there was never certainty of safety, and whenever there’s a horror Alex or someone else has to endure, whether it’s a fight between someone thirsty for pain or a strange yet familiar creature slithering around the yard or even not being permitted to eat, you feel no punches are pulled because just like in a regular prison, there’s no reason for punches not to be that way.
The bromance between Alex and Donovan is developed better than pretty much any other romance story you’ll read, and it’s not even the main point of the story. Donovan puts Alex under his belt to protect him from the horrors he’s now acquainted with and Alex gives him slow but evergrowing hope of one day hearing birds again, all the while they both enjoy each other’s company at a time where friendship’s all you really have. There’s also Zee in the mix but compared to the two of them, it’s no contest. Not only do the two of them have an inter-racial, practically gay brotherhood that’s as realistic as it starts out rocky, but the innocence of Alex and Donovan both show with all their might how important it is to give people second chances and not just throw their lives away.
Lockdown is one of my favourite books of all time, and I’m not just saying that because the author liked me when I showed interest in starring in a possible movie adaptation of his masterful fearfest.
If you like this, I would try: The rest of the series and Hellraisers, also by Alexander Gordon Smith