Skyhorse Publishing, 2016, 272 pages
Since the 1970s, FantasticLand has been the theme park where "Fun is Guaranteed!" But when a hurricane ravages the Florida coast and isolates the park, the employees find it anything but fun. Five weeks later, the authorities who rescue the survivors encounter a scene of horror. Photos soon emerge online of heads on spikes outside of rides and viscera and human bones littering the gift shops, breaking records for hits, views, likes, clicks, and shares. How could a group of survivors, mostly teenagers, commit such terrible acts?
Presented as a fact-finding investigation and a series of first-person interviews, FantasticLand pieces together the grisly series of events. Park policy was that the mostly college-aged employees surrender their electronic devices to preserve the authenticity of the FantasticLand experience. Cut off from the world and left on their own, the teenagers soon form rival tribes who viciously compete for food, medicine, social dominance, and even human flesh. This new social network divides the ravaged dreamland into territories ruled by the Pirates, the ShopGirls, the Freaks, and the Mole People. If meticulously curated online personas can replace private identities, what takes over when those constructs are lost?
FantasticLand is a modern take on Lord of the Flies meets Battle Royale that probes the consequences of a social civilization built online.
The premise is catchy and gripping — a massive hurricane strikes Florida, leaving an amusement park called "Fantasticland" (whose history and geography is built up over the course of the novel to explain this fictional third-place competitor to Disneyworld and Universal Studios) isolated out in the boonies. With no connection to the outside world for weeks, the stranded employees of the park form into warring tribes - the Pirates, the Deadpools, the Shopkeepers, the Moles, the Freaks, etc... and engage in a weeks-long bloodbath. If the idea of Battle Royale at Disneyworld with cutting edge (in 2017) pop culture references sounds like fun, you should read this.
A few things about the story couldn't bridge my suspension of disbelief. There are several contrived reasons to explain how Fantasticland gets cut off from all relief efforts for weeks, but the big one was that the author really wanted to make this a story about "How do a bunch of Facebook-addict young adult theme park employees turn into rampaging gangsta murderers in a matter of days?" And without even the pressure of survival, since it's stated several times that the park had plenty of food and water, all they had to do was wait for rescue.
One of the motivating factors, of course, is the "villain" of the story, a charismatic sociopath who forms the "Pirates" and begins the bloodletting, and he later tries to put his own spin on how he turned a bunch of kids into murderers by giving them "purpose." He (and the author) try to make it about the Millenial need for validation and affirmation on social media - cut off from their Facebook and Twitter feeds, no longer able to overshare ever detail of their mundane lives, they are driftless and purposeless and so.... it makes perfect sense to start killing each other? Somehow, it just didn't wash for me.
I'm also just not a huge fan of the "interview/media excerpt" style of storytelling. Fantasticland is written as a journalist's book about the event, including his interviews with various survivors. It's a valid narrative gimmick, just not one I really like.
It also felt like the author was pulling his punches by avoiding the elephant in the room: rape. You've got a bunch of violent young people turning into warring tribes with a complete breakdown of social boundaries, and yet rape is only ever hinted at. There are some instances of girls being "captured" by the Pirates, but it's almost a Peter Pan-like game — the Pirate leader (the sociopath who instigated the bloodshed in the first place) includes in his "Pirate Code" an implausible code of honor that includes treating women with respect. Which doesn't preclude killing them, mind — he just doesn't want relationship drama. So in the midst of this horrific survival thriller, we're just supposed to either ignore or infer what else would happen, because, presumably, the author doesn't want to be lit up on Twitter for writing another book about women getting raped. It just seems weird that you can write a book about kids torturing, butchering, and eating each other (yes, it's implied that there are instances of cannibalism), but rape is off-limits.
Fantasticland has its moments, from the joking references to survivalist girl archers to the inevitable "Which Tribe Are You?" Internet quizzes that pop up in the wake of the event, and of course, some gritty survival-horror that puts you in the situation and makes you think "What would you do?" The problem is I just never found it believable that I would be in this situation. So I'd call this an entertaining bit of Hollywood-style violence-porn, but nothing really genre-breaking as a novel.
My complete list of book reviews.