Solitary by Alexander Gordon Smith Book Review

The book’s title does spoil the gist of not just the plot of this book, but the outcome of the cliffhanger, so when I first read it five years ago I had a lot of hesitation. But as time went on after reading it, I respected this entry in the horrifying quintet more and more.

The second book in the Escape from Furnace series, Alex Sawyer, Zee Hatcher and tagalong Gary Owens manage to make it out of the main walls of the prison and have sealed off the way they came in so the guards can’t catch them, but considering they’re still a mile beneath the Earth, they’ve still got problems on their hands. Not to mention Alex is still reeling from his cellmate and best friend Carl Donovan being coincidentally chosen for experimentation and snatched from his cell the day before their grand escape. A grand escape that brings them back into the clutches of the Warden, who give them a month in solitary, a place Donovan once went to for three days and felt a piece of him went missing there. Solitary confinement in Furnace consists of a hole in the ground so tiny you can’t properly sit down, with only a small pipe in the ground for a toilet, minimal food and the only available water running down the filthy walls. Alex soon can’t help seeing hallucinations and feel his soul draining in the pitch black, but all hope is not lost when not only do Alex and Zee find a way to communicate and kill their new mortal enemy of time, but a small secret society sneaking around the basements of Furnace are now helping the two, having gained confidence in them from their ability to make it out of Gen Pop. With that, we get Chapter 2.

When Alex is in this hole in the ground, I thought of Andy Dufresne from Shawshank, of how he had to spend a month in solitary confinement without the privilege of communicating with anyone like Alex had, only to be told by the warden he was going to have yet another month to think about all sorts of cruel threats. Only the solitary confinement in Escape from Furnace is even worse than that, from the descriptions above. The book really expands its looks into the human mind and how it can cave in on itself, and how time flies when you manage to have fun or concentrate on something. When Alex and Zee find a way to not only talk to each other but devour the hours, it’s one of those one-in-a-million genius ideas, just like Smith’s idea of making this an underground supernatural prison.

Smith doesn’t write what he’s saying like he’s trying to teach us something, even though his situations talk all about our brains. He also gives a healthy emphasis on Donovan, of the abuse he’s going through and whether he still has the ability to escape and see light once again without losing himself like other prisoners have done under whatever the warden does in the dreaded prison infirmary. This book has pure heartbreak in it, of how much Donovan was able to do for Alex, keeping him sane and having smiles that chased away darkness, and yet Alex feels unable to return the favour and him letting his best friend down really scars him. It scars us, too.

Solitary has self-imposed limits, especially considering a lot of the “Darn it” moments in the series are in this one, and the characters, whenever they sneak around, sometimes don’t seem very stealthy, but the terror of confinement and the self-inflicted attacks from personal isolation, not to mention some devastating tragedy, is really hard to find so effectively in books these days.

If you like this, I’d try the rest of the series, and An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

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