93 pages 3 hours read

Neal Shusterman

Full Tilt

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 2003

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Summary and Study Guide


Full Tilt is a young adult psychological horror novel written by author Neal Shusterman. Shusterman has written over 30 books, many of which have won literary awards. He was born in New York City but moved to Mexico City as a teenager. From there, he studied psychology and theater at the University of California in Irvine. He is also a screenwriter for both television and film. Full Tilt earned over 20 literary awards after its publication on September 1, 2004, including the American Library Association’s Popular Paperback Award and the International Reading Association’s Young Adult Choice Award. This guide uses the Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers paperback edition, November 2019.

Plot Summary

Blake is a risk-averse young man who often butts heads with his reckless younger brother, Quinn. He narrates Full Tilt in a first-person, limited perspective. At an amusement park with Quinn and two of his friends, Maggie and Russ, Blake’s ride on the Kamikaze roller coaster, which uses special effects to simulate a derailment, traumatizes Blake. After the ride, a girl named Cassandra invites him to play her ball toss game; he wins a ruffled teddy bear with a mysterious invitation in its shirt pocket. When Quinn falls into a coma that night, Blake is convinced that there are supernatural elements at play. He convinces Maggie and Russ to join him at the address on the invitation—an old quarry in the woods. When they arrive, they find the pit filled with the sights and sounds of a carnival.

At the underwhelming park, Blake spots Cassandra. He follows her onto the carousel. The real world falls away as the carousel animals come to life and stampede across a large plain. Cassandra joins the stampede on her own animal and tries to kill Blake. He escapes with his friends after realizing that his ride—a blue lion—is the mascot for Columbia University, which accepted him for enrollment at a young age. Fear gives Blake second thoughts about whether he should attend; the park is using his fears against him.

After surviving a bumper car demolition derby, Blake learns that he must survive a total of seven rides by dawn. Each ride utilizes different elements of his many fears. Blake finds his brother on the next ride, a pirate ship at sea threatened by a monstrous whale that represents Blake’s mother. She goes through many boyfriends—each of whom inevitably disappears. He survives the ride and saves Quinn, but Quinn confesses that he doesn’t want to escape the park.

In a mirror maze, Blake and Maggie reunite. The mirrors have turned Maggie into a disfigured monster. Blake tries to save Maggie by running headfirst through the mirrors. Before they escape, Blake loses Maggie and continues alone. A subsequent ride returns Blake to the midway, and Russ, who made a deal with Cassandra, betrays him. Russ falls into the inner workings of the park, a series of gears and levers that meld with their operators.

Blake finds Quinn again, this time cast as the pharaoh of a fantasy Egyptian kingdom. Quinn is set to be poisoned and mummified; Blake tries to help, but he is taken into custody by guards. They imprison Blake with his father. Rather than try to renew his relationship with the father who abandoned him, Blake sets him free without a departing word. He rescues Quinn from mummification before briefly falling into “The Works” himself. There, Cassandra offers to let Blake run the park with her; he refuses.

On the final ride, Blake allows himself to become more like Quinn: He takes risks that seem reckless. By finding middle ground, Blake and Quinn survive the ride. As the park, defeated for the first time, falls apart, Cassandra tries to meld herself with Blake. He learns that she is responsible for the source of his trauma: a school bus accident from his childhood in which he was the only survivor. Blake realizes that he is not a passive figure in his own life but that his trauma buried his willpower. Finding his inner strength, he shoves her away and the crumbling park kills her.

Blake wakes up in the driver’s seat of his car as paramedics try to pry him from its wreckage. The car is crumpled against a tree at the quarry’s rim. Blake and Maggie agree that the park was real. Blake checks in on Quinn, who has woken up from his coma. Blake forgives Russ, but they do not resolve the friction between them. The park’s trials make Blake a stronger young man who is eager to take risks that will ensure a brighter future for himself and his family.