A complimentary advanced reader copy of this book was provided by Gallery Books in exchange for an honest review. (Thank you!) My review was in no way influenced by this consideration.
Phoenix Island is intense. It’s easy to see how it lends itself to a screen adaptation in the new TV show Intelligence: it’s vivid and action-packed, and there are lots of places to go with it–particularly after book one finishes. Having read it, it’s clear that the TV show is springing forward from the very end of the book, so maybe go into it considering it backstory, and not a parallel to what you might see on TV.
Here’s the basic premise: Carl’s a well-intentioned kid who can’t stand to watch as kids are bullied (for deep-seeded reasons we learn about later). Because he’s a trained, prize-winning boxer, when his temper gets the better of him, things don’t go down well for whomever’s on the other end of his fists, and Carl keeps landing in trouble with the law. Despite his desire to do the right thing and otherwise generally be a good kid, he’s finally messed up one time too many, and is sent to boot camp–or something like it–on Phoenix Island. But Carl soon learns that this boot camp isn’t quite what anyone expected. It turns out that all the kids there are orphaned, oh, and hey, it’s really more of a mercenary training camp–kill, or be killed. He’s not quite sure how he and his friends will survive. Or escape? Things get crazy.
Phoenix Island is a wild ride. It’s full of action, and extraordinarily descriptive–I felt like I was right there, the whole time, while all the insanity was going down. Dixon is skilled at writing plot and setting, and, again, that should translate really well to the screen. The boxing scenes in particular are meticulously detailed–it doesn’t hurt that Dixon is a former Golden Gloves champion, himself–which makes for explosive action.
As for character work, I really enjoyed Carl. He was nicely fleshed out and it was easy to step into his psyche. Despite his urge to fight (which, considering his circumstances, isn’t a bad thing), Carl’s a smart and compassionate character, and he’s easy to like. Several of the other characters in the book were favorites, too–Campbell, Carl’s platoon guide, and Rivera, the only sympathetic drill sergeant on the island, were nice highlights.
If the book has one downfall, it’s in the relationship between Carl and Octavia. While I liked Octavia, I didn’t feel like I got to know her very well. Neither did Carl, so it was hard to understand why he was so attached to her. When it came down to the final climactic scenes of the book, Octavia’s portions made a bit more sense to me than Carl’s–I was just having trouble understanding his motivation, since we hadn’t gotten enough of his emotional reaction to her, I guess. His behavior just seemed weird.
That said, the extremely difficult and nuanced relationship between Carl and Stark was spot-on. I loved it, and Stark was both attractive and terrifying, at once. So much of the book depends on Stark’s character and that relationship, and Dixon’s writing, here, is excellent.
All told, I was completely wrapped up in the story, and I’d go back for a sequel in a heartbeat. I can’t wait to see what CBS does with a TV version, and where they’re going to take it. I purposely haven’t looked up plot synopses: I want to be surprised, and it should be fun.
Couple of mild swear words (the ones they get away with on network TV). Definitely some violence/blood/guns. No sex. 4 stars.