Fourteen-year-old Alex Sawyer is the bully on the playground you were terrified of as a kid---lunch money stealer and all. He and his best friend Toby make it a habit to break into peoples' homes and steal whatever strikes their fancy. One night, however, their heist turns lethal when Toby is gunned down in cold blood by gigantic men in black suits and creepy strangers wearing gas masks. Alex didn't do it, but with no one to back up his story, he's found guilty of the murder and sentenced to life in Furnace Penitentiary, the world's worst maximum-security prison for teenage criminals.
On the surface, Furnace is kind of like a teen version of Oz; the days are long, the work is hard and the food is terrible. There are a few minor differences, though, like the seriously gross-looking mutant dogs that run around hoping for a bite (or ten) of human flesh. There's also the blood watch siren that sounds at night, which causes kids to get snatched from their beds and disappear. So yeah, Alex wants out, and he's determined to find a way to escape. There's only one problem: no one has ever escaped from Furnace.
Okay, let's start out with the positives. First of all, the book is chock-full of tension. I had a moment in the bookstore when I was trying to decide between this book and another one that was pretty similar. The reason this one won out was because it hooked me like a baited fish right from the first line. The opening scene has Alex running for his life with mutant dogs hot on his tail, and it sets your pulse pounding as if you're right there in the prison with him.
That brings me to the second main strength of the book: great imagery. Smith does an excellent job making the world of Furnace come alive for his readers. You can literally feel the heat in the air, taste the grainy, disgusting prison slop and hear the wild shrieks of the gas-masked creatures echoing in the night. Reading it is truly an intense and viseral experience.
Now it's time to discuss the novel's weaknesses. Although I enjoyed the page-turning aspects of the story, I was turned off by Smith's tendency to spell everything out for his readers. Remember the old adage, "Show, don't tell"? Well, Smith does a heck of a lot of telling in the story. When every other sentence drives home just how horrendously evil and awful Furnace is, that's just overkill. I know the guards are mean; you don't need to use the words "malicious" and "cruel" every time you describe them, you know?
This flaw made the characters problematic for me as well. I never felt any real connection to most of them because they were all put in boxes. As in, characters A, B and C are good, while characters X, Y and Z are eeeeevil. Alex was the exception, an anti-hero if you will, but I would've preferred if all the characters had been that way. It was too black and white; I needed more shades of gray.
The Bottom Line: If you're looking for a fast-paced thriller that doesn't require you to think too much, Lockdown is for you. It wasn't fabulous and it wasn't terrible, just pretty decent. There were some frightening supernatural elements in it, so it's not for the kidlets, but anyone middle-school aged and above should be okay.
Lockdown is the first book in the Escape From Furnace trilogy, with Solitary and Death Sentence due out in 2010 and 2011 in the U.S. (both are already available in the UK). I'm interested in seeing how things pan out Alex and his friends.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars (worth grabbing on PaperBackSwap.com)
Time for sharing now. What do you think of my very first ever book review? Love it? Hate it? Utterly indifferent? Let me know your thoughts!