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Children's Literacy Round-Up: September 28

Pastworld: Ian Beck

Book: Pastworld 
Author: Ian Beck 
Pages: 320 
Age Range: 14 and up 

PastworldIan Beck's Pastworld is a young adult title that is a bit difficult to categorize. The setting is a mix of past and future. The genre a mix of mystery/thriller and speculative science fiction. But I found the premise irresistible.

Pastworld is a theme park version of Victorian London. It's a fully restored, historically accurate (mostly) version of the city. Some people live there full-time, while others visit as tourists from 21st century society (they are called Gawkers). Everyone currently in Pastworld is required to dress with historical accuracy (no cell phones, no plastic, etc.). They are also subject to the laws in place during Victorian England. A murderer can be hanged, a thief can have a hand cut off, etc. This is no sanitized version of history - there are pickpockets and beggars, horse droppings and moldy cheeses. And executions.

The story in Pastworld is told primarily through the viewpoints of three teenagers and one adult. Eve is a beautiful, talented girl who has lived her whole live in Pastworld, and doesn't even know that the 21st century world exists. Bible J is a resident pickpocket with a surprisingly tender heart. Caleb is a first-time visitor from the 21st century, the sheltered son of one of the founders of Pastworld. Chief Inspector Catchpole is a representative of Scotland Yard, dividing his time between the outside world and Pastworld, taxed with solving a crime. Their four stories intersect as the book progresses. A mysterious villain is also featured, though his background is far less clear.

Pastworld is quite moody and atmospheric. It reminded me of Resurrection Men, by T. K. Welsh, and a bit of The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. It's an interesting mix of past and future (as conveyed by the cover, with an airship above a Victorian-looking street). The premise is unique and compelling, and the story suspenseful. I must admit, however, that I found the narrative structure a bit confusing to read at first - beyond "this is a mystery, and I'm trying to figure out what happened" into "who are these characters and what are they doing?" territory. This resolved about mid-way through the book for me, however, and I stayed up late to finish. (And, of course, I'm reviewing from the advance copy, so there could be changes in the final book.)

Beck's descriptive power stands out throughout the book. Scenes are conveyed through sights, sounds, smells, and the emotions of the viewer. Here are a couple of examples:

"Few sounds were to be heart at that early hour, only the drone of the airship's engines and the mournful moans of the foghorns, which seemed almost to be searching for one another, somewhere along the silvered and twisted ribbon of river. Further away in the distance, from the deep, slumbering darkness at the centre of the city, could be heard the faint tolling of a single church bell.

There was little human movement." (Page 1, ARC)

"In the evening we had a cold supper of sliced mutton, pickles and bread. We ate in silence. Our cutlery clattered on the plate. Jack breathed heavily not looking at me.

Since that day Jack has remained in a watchful and preoccupied state." (Page 20, ARC. The tone is different from above, because this quote is from a journal excerpt, by Eve)

"The streets and buildings stretched from one side of the window to the other. Horse-drawn carriages could be seen, crowded pavements, the great dull curve of the river, green squares and parks, and white church spires, grey roofs and dark red railway trains trailing billows of steam. Even Caleb gasped. He hadn't wanted to give his father the satisfaction of seeing how interested he really was in the city below them, didn't want him to see that a great flicker of excitement had just at that moment grown, doubled, trebled, as the airship slipped gracefully through the gloomy fog bank and floated over the dreamlike city itself." (Page 68, ARC)

In part because of the structural complexity of the book, and in part because of the British setting, Pastworld had more the feel to me of an adult mystery than a young adult title. There is also some pretty grim content, presented in a matter-of-fact manner (murders and dismemberment). I think that Pastworld will intrigue older teens and adults, but I don't think I'd try it with middle schoolers. I would recommend it for anyone who likes dark, moody stories, historical fiction, and/or books that cross the line between past and future.

Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children's Books
Publication Date: September 29, 2009
Source of Book: Advanced review copy from the publisher. Quotes are from the advance copy, and should be checked against the final, printed book
Other Blog Reviews: Kiss the Book
Author Interviews: Living in a Picture Book

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.