The Phoenix Project by D.M. Cain
is set in a bleak and uncompromising future where terrorist attacks and religious fundamentalism have become rife across the globe. The government has outlawed religion and is struggling to control an increasingly violent public. The nation is angry, scared and lost and with this fear comes a surge in crime and the prisons start to fill beyond their capacity.
Hoping to ease the pressure on the overcrowded prisons, the government introduces a brutal and uncompromising penal system – The Phoenix Project. Inmates are sentenced to five years in Salverford penitentiary – a heavily guarded, maximum security prison from which escape is impossible. Once inside Salverford, prisoners are forced to fight each other to the death in front of TV cameras, watched by a world that callously cheers for their favourites.
Awaiting his death at the hands of The Phoenix Project is Raven Kennedy, a bitterly depressed young man, who struggles daily with the guilt and horror of the crime which landed him there. He despises himself and longs to end it all, but cannot forgive himself enough to end his life. So he fights until he can forgive himself enough to drift into the oblivion of death. But with every life he takes, he adds more remorse and pain to his struggling soul.
He turns to disturbing methods of self-harm, feeling an overwhelming need to punish himself further, but he has no weapon or tool to hurt himself with. This leads him to Alexia who supplies forbidden contraband in the prison, and who will become an invaluable part of his life as he battles through both his tragic past and his horrific present. She becomes his support, his only friend, the reason he is able to keep going – even as he comes up against Khan and Millicent, the prison’s most brutal and sadistic fighters.
Where Alexia provides the friendship Raven sorely needs, it is in the stunning singer, Kiri Zakis that he finds love. The intelligent and enlightened Kiri teaches Raven the value of life, that it is unfair to wish for death when others have it thrust upon them.
The tale of Raven’s past and the events that landed him in the Phoenix Project are told alongside his journey through Salverford. Flashbacks tell us who Raven was before his crime and gradually reveal how he came to be in such a terrible situation.
This book has elements of stories such as ‘The Hunger Games’, but the tone is far more psychological. The real journey is through Raven’s twisted, broken psyche as he tries to find his way to either a blissful death or to forgiveness.
It explores themes such as the nature of life and death, depression and self harm, faith and denial and, most of all, the moral question of whether the death penalty can really solve the nation’s problems.