Four young people test a new, high-tech amusement park ride that tests them in turn.
In openly admitted homage to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Cole brings together a quartet of (supposed) contest winners to take the titular machine on an inaugural ride. Outfitting them in special body suits (“We’re going to look like Oompa-Loompas”), he subjects them to a barrage of hazards ranging from a stampede of miniature moose to a cleaver-wielding actor specializing in psychopathic murderers and murderous robots. But although it’s all the product of an advanced form of virtual reality that is supposed to incorporate each player’s distinctive fears, most of the terrors encountered (aside from the moose) are generic horror-show fare. The four preteens—two white, one “dark-skinned,” one “olive”—make up a like muddle: Cameron is a motor-mouthed brainiac (with a fetching habit of unconsciously stripping to his underwear when deep in thought), Nika and Trevor are afflicted with medical conditions that leave them, respectively, incapable of feeling any physical pain or fear, and in an odd bit of genre miscasting, Devin is clairvoyant. Moreover, the author himself seems unsure where the VR ends and the other sort resumes; the robots, for instance, seem to exist in both.
Cole pitches some entertaining notions but proves weak on follow-through. (Science fantasy. 11-13)