In this gritty and disturbing YA novel, Smith creates Furnace Penitentiary, the "toughest maximum security prison in the world for young offenders." Furnace makes the U.S. prison system--even maximum security lockdowns like Rikers Island--look like a child's tea party. Framed for his best friend's murder, Alex gets a life sentence in this hellhole. Even though Alex is guilty of breaking and entering and bullying and fighting, readers will like him. He shows his true colors once he enters the Furnace. Championing underdogs and saving lives, Alex fights for the rights of the little guys. He stands toe to toe with the most brutal of the prison gangs, the Skulls.
The prison itself is wedged in a massive gorge beneath the Earth. Rock surrounds them on all sides. There is no escape, only death. There are no safeguards for prisoners' rights. In fact, the guards would rather see the prisoners dead than alive. The sadistic warden welcomes new boys by saying, "Beneath heaven is hell, boys, and beneath hell is Furnace. I hope you enjoy your stay."
Sometimes "they" come for you in the middle of the night. Sometimes you come back and most of the time, you don't. Alex is determined to find a way out. He enlists the help of his cellmate and two other boys who came in with him. They come up with a risky plan to blow a hole through solid rock using gas from the kitchen's stoves. If it works, they will probably die in the explosion. If caught, they will die. If they stay in Furnace, they are guarenteed death. This is a no-brainer for Alex. Readers will not be able to put this book down.
Exciting and ferocious. Action-packed. Reluctant readers will enjoy this thrill-ride. Highly recommended for YA collections, grade 7-high school.