Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth is the ultimate adventure-fantasy for a bored, uninspired child: It’s about making friends in a magical world, saving it from ruin, and discovering a love of learning along the way. DC Pierson’s second novel, Crap Kingdom, is the anti-Phantom Tollbooth, imagining a world so bereft of gleeful wish-fulfillment that the protagonist, prophesized savior of its denizens, begs for the dubious honor to be rescinded.
A high-school sophomore living with his single mother, Tom excels at drama, but not much else. His grades threaten to keep him from performing in another play, he struggles to talk to the drama girl he likes, and he clashes with his mother constantly. But Tom longs for a fantastical journey to another world. Lucky for him, a mystical being from another dimension arrives to steal him away to just such a world; unfortunately, it’s a disgusting mess where citizens wear tattered thrift clothes and brew mysterious grog in portable toilets, and the king hates him for his skepticism.
Tom falls victim to the old saying, “Be careful what you wish for.” Placed in the scenario he wished for—an escape from his life without a father, failing in school—he’s so repelled by the unnamed fantasy kingdom that he returns to the real world determined to shut himself in his room and do homework early in order to make himself eligible for afterschool drama. But curiosity lures him back to the world, where he discovers someone else has usurped his title, earned the kingdom’s respect and admiration, and learned its magical secrets. Pierson taps into youthful jealousy and fracturing friendships, as Tom contends with someone who is not only talented at sports, but classically handsome—the antithesis of what Tom fantasizes for his heroic destiny.
Throughout the novel, Pierson’s humor and wit improves potentially drab and routine fantasy plotting. Though Tom dubs the world Crap Kingdom, everyone else simply refers to the nameless place with an extended mishmash of gibberish. And when Tom or anyone else from his world journeys across the dimensional portal—first through a thrift-store donation bin outside a Target—a placeholder soul gets left to pilot their body, which humorously pays artistic and social dividends for Tom, who then grapples with the ethics of artificial self-improvement.
Pierson’s best choice is making Tom a Chosen One in an extremely roundabout way. It comes down to a distinction between savior and hero—Tom wants to be the former, with all the magic powers, but he’s the latter, and accidentally falls into that role thanks to some interdimensional trickery. Coming-of-age fantasy stories hinge on the protagonist taking the lessons of the fantasy world and applying them to “real life,” leading to maturation. Most importantly, Tom learns humility, and that self-mythologizing frequently leads to personal disappointment.
In the end, Crap Kingdom comes off as a bit slight. It’s a quick read that launches several side plots that cut off right as they get going, in favor of a dramatic magical battle that takes up most of the final third. Then it tacks on a mystifying coda that only half explains the fantasy premise, while setting up a potential sequel. Still, it’s entertaining and funny, while whipping in a strong message about how life goals can frequently be fulfilled via unexpected, character-building routes.