Under Heaven is Hell. Under Hell is Furnace.
Alex Sawyer has been set up.
He started going bad at age twelve, holding up other kids for their lunch money. The odd pound here and there proved insufficient as his ambitions grew with his stature, and he’s moved on to housebreaking with his mates. They heard tell of a house left empty in the poncy neighborhood, with a wad of cash left lying in a coffee can or something similarly (un)subtle…and they break in. No such luck. Alex is upstairs, hand on the bankroll, when he hears a scream from downstairs where his friend Toby was keeping a lookout.
Men in black suits were waiting for him downstairs, along with a single person, face concealed behind a gas mask and twitching as if in the throes of a seizure. One of the men in black is holding Toby…another shoots Toby and casually tosses the gun to Alex, who without thinking catches it. Realizing what this means, Alex flees, only to be caught by the police, arrested and put on trial. He is, of course, sentenced, as everything was rigged, and he is sent to Furnace.
Furnace is the new high-security facility for juvenile offenders, set up as part of the societal backlash against teens who’d gone on a summer-long rampage of crime and violence. Built deep underground in a natural crevice and capped with a fortress preventing escape upwards, there’s no escape from Furnace. Or is there? Well, of course there is or we wouldn’t have a plot…or is there? Readers will just have to read the sequels, now won’t they? Given the subtitles of the series, it’s pretty much a given that the main characters at least try, or there wouldn’t be much of a plot.
In some ways, Furnace is similar to what readers know of prisons today. There are ranks of open-grilled cells around a central courtyard, which are spartan in the extreme–large enough only for a pair of bunks and a toilet. Days are spent at hard labor, nights locked in their cells. Guards watch the inmates and gangs rule what freedoms the guards permit. Rules and regulations govern the inmates’ days: lights on, meals, work, leisure, lights off are all done to a rigid schedule which must not be broken.
In many ways, it is not at all familiar, starting with the prison guards and warden. The routine guards are nicknamed “blacksuits”; not surprisingly, they are dressed in black suits, looming large over the inmates as the inmates go about their daily duties. Modified dogs, implied to be based on Dobermans, but bulging with muscles that no normal dog ought to have, chase down prisoners not where they ought to be. The warden is a supernally threatening man–Alex’s eyes slide off his face when the warden is present, and on the telescreen, the warden’s eyes are pits into unimaginable depths. Worst of all are the “wheezers”. Figures out of nightmare, it’s not entirely clear if they’re still human; they are cloaked in full-length black leather dusters and their faces covered with antiquated gas masks which appear to be surgically embedded in their flesh–only their eyes, beady and black, can be seen. They move twitching swiftly, as if seen in a badly made film, run fast-forward, and their only vocalization is a raspy scream. To complete the horror, they’re armed in a manner of speaking, with bandoliers of rusty old hypodermic needles with which they inject the prisoners they’ve selected for removal.
Alex and his friends, such as can be made in a hellhole like Furnace, are determined to escape. Fresh air seeping into the cavern they’re excavating leads them to a passageway, and natural gas siphoned from the cookstove tanks into rubber gloves provides an explosive needed to widen the crack down to an underground river
I appreciate that the guardians of Furnace–the wheezers, the blacksuits, the Warden and the dogs–are not here fully explained, though we find out more about them in the sequels. The lack of information heightened their creepiness; the wheezers alone are enough to give me nightmares. Unfortunately, the occasional mentions of popular culture–Indiana Jones, Al Pacino–were somewhat perplexing: is this an alternate history? If it’s set in the future, how would the characters know about them? I’ll wait to read the sequels before deciding what I think of the books as a whole; the cliffhanger ending of this book would put the Saturday serials to shame.