The Phoenix Project was no small surprise for me. It guides the reader into the abyss of what is wrong with humanity, so many negative feelings, brutality, alienation, fascination with fame, lack of faith and communication, and the overwhelming exuberance of alienation. It is not the book for the faint-hearted, romantic reader who seeks light entertainment, and the author obviously did not write it according to the popular recipe for book sales, but out of conviction.
This is a dystopian version of human reality set in a horribly violent prison, with characters of questionable morality and almost no hope for optimism, save naivety. The main (anti)hero Raven is placed in a prison for a crime he did commit, and is forced, along with others, to fight to life or death in the prison arena during televised fights, deluded by the warden’s false promise of early release 5 years later and a zero chance of surviving that long. Along the way you also follow a paralel story of Raven’s life before prison, explaining what led to his crime.
Considering the current events in the world, the story is relevant in its relation to the consequences of terrorism, and is painfully shocking in depicting what people turn into when they are oppressed and afraid the whole time. The author poses a huge challenge before the reader – how do you justify the main character, who is a criminal himself although he claims to hate killing? What punishment would you give or could you give? How much is enough to atone for our trangressions and who is to judge? The corruption of society leaders and the obsession with media fame are too close to home for modern society, adding to the effect of the story on the reader.
The author’s style is consistent in depicting the depressing and overwhelming amount of unnecessary violence, people herded like sheep and subdued by fear, difficulties in forming even simple friendships, let alone meaningful romance. The amount of violence is strongly reminiscent of gladiator fights, and the historical analogy emphasizes the futility of hope for human progress. The story is profused by the dark and gloomy all the way, except for the epilogue which you can read at the link in the end of the story.
The characters are memorable, for all their faults and weaknesses. The inevitable fascination with brutality, madness and the celebrity cult is a vital spiritus movens of the story. You are both shocked and mesmerized by the characters, for instance – the quite extraordinary Millicent and Khan, the brutal brother and sister and the story of how violence shapes them. No character is faultless, nobody beyond reproach, even the seeming ‘good guys and gals’, even despite their redeeming actions and life history.
Raven, the main anti-hero, was difficult to relate with for me – his lack of strength and conviction in his everyday life outside prison is so sad. He tries to please his girlfriend Seraphia by not being himself, he stays with her even after she makes a tragic decision about their common future (trying to avoid spoilers here) and even though he knows she is leaving. This eventually leads up to his crime, which, for the reader, becomes easy to guess, but difficult to condone. You keep wondering why he didn’t just choose a different path. Raven makes all the wrong decisions, and his life is a study into loneliness, depression, weakness, indecisiveness, lethargy, guilt… The feeling of isolation is enhanced by the lack of anything outside the prison from the moment he enters it, which adds to the claustrophobic atmosphere. The final scenes, when he is forced to be alone with himself, are interesting, because people always say it is the most difficult thing in life not to be able to spend time with your own self. Apart from the vivid graphic descriptions, I felt the author could have even done slightly more with this section. The purgatory/hell-like scenery is depicted really well.
However, I cannot recommend this read to everyone, but only because this kind of a story is an acquired taste. The author’s dedication and vision are strong and convincing. I am definitely recommending The Phoenix Project to fans of post-apocalyptic dystopia and those interested in the psychology of violence and loneliness.
What amazes me is knowing that the author must have gone to a really dark place of vision for this story, and is to be commended for persevering in the same tone and mood the entire time, and sticking to conviction, without succumbing to what is easier. Congratulations on that courage.
(On a P.S. note, I have read the epilogue, and much as my romantic side felt it deserved its readers, it stood slightly separate from the rest of the story in its tone. So many things happen in the epilogue, which soothe the optimists among readers, but compared to the development of the book plot itself, it feels more like a dream than the ‘real’ ending. Nevertheless, I was grateful for the offer of hope and consolation.)