Fresh from the Tom Trueheart series, Ian Beck makes a foray into Young Adult fiction once more with Pastworld, a sci-fi novel set in the past, er, in the future. Sort of.
The central conceit of the book is the titular Pastworld, being a scale and functional replication of Victorian London, sealed in by a giant dome in which people live, most of them believing that they are in fact in the London of the period. Old laws apply and the rule of the knife applies even more. Pastworld is haunted by a Jack The Ripper-esque character named The Fantom, who is alternately hailed as a hero by the poor classes and a demon by others. Rich people from outside Pastworld, named Gawkers by its inhabitants, come to see how people lived in that time and partake in gruesome spectacles, such as illicit showings of recent murder victims and watching people in police stations. One of these Gawkers, Caleb Brown, becomes violently separated from his father and ends up with a local rapscallion named Bible J, who in turn has affections for the mysterious Eve. All of the characters are connected, but the way in which they are unravels as the book progresses.
Beck’s style is easily accessible and will appeal to the younger end of the teenage market, at which this novel is clearly aimed with its careful skirting of the edges of darkness, throwing in a little gore now and again to keep older readers entertained. His world in itself is decently realised for the medium, coming off as a little cartoonish to an adult audience but undoubtedly immersive enough for his younger audience.
Characterisation is also a strong point with Beck’s writing, although his central characters aren’t all that sympathetic. The plot progresses at a pace after the sluggish first few chapters, enough so that it makes it hard to put down, although there are certain points where it’s forced into a momentary lull, interrupting the otherwise very good flow of the narrative. Our main issue with the book, giving it leeway in terms of credibility due to its nature as a sci-fi novel aimed at children, is the final act of the novel. After such a huge build-up, there’s no real sense of conclusion at the very end, and the last pages are so forced into leaving it open for a sequel that it really does spoil the mood of what was otherwise a fun and enjoyable read.
For most of the novel, then, despite a few flaws, Pastworld is on the whole a good read. Beck knows what he’s doing with a pen and paper, and although there is an extremely dissatisfying conclusion, it’ll be sure to excite the younger teenagers among us. We wouldn’t recommend it to anyone aged below that, however, due to a few rather graphic scenes and disturbing imagery that wouldn’t suit well. Adult readers may even get a kick out of it too, but don’t expect anything groundbreaking, mind, if you’re coming at it from that perspective.