Friday, July 16, 2010

Sci-Fi Friday Review: Pastworld by Ian Beck

Found via: Eating YA Books

In middle school, one of my favorite books was Margaret Peterson Haddix's Running Out of Time. The day that the librarians (Cindy and Lynn) book talked it, someone else grabbed it first, so I begged my parents to buy me a copy.

Yeah, I really wanted that book.

So when I first read Jan's review of Pastworld, I looked past everything that had bothered her and focused on the parts that sounded like a more grown up Running Out of Time - a girl who has grown up in a theme park she believes really is Victorian-era London, living under the terror of a Jack the Ripper style serial killer.

PastworldPastworld is the world's most successful theme park, recreating the darkness and danger of 19th century London in the middle of London in 2048, courtesy of the Buckland Corporation. The rich and powerful pay for the privilege to dress up and become part of the scenery, experiencing life outside of the very sanitized 21st century - often taking grisly delight in the unofficial "murder tours," gawking at the crime scenes of murders committed by the Fantom, a mysterious masked criminal who started as a petty thief, but has escalated to committing heinous murders, decapitating his victims and removing their hearts.

Oblivious to most of this is Eve, who is one of the few who believes that Pastworld is real. Sheltered by her guardian, blind Jack, Eve feels stifled. She gathers her courage one day and runs away to join the circus, where she discovers she has quite the talent for walking the tight rope, and is immediately adopted by the circus folk.

At the same time, Lucius Brown and his son, Caleb, have come to visit Pastworld, summoned by a curious letter from Jack after Eve disappeared. The Fantom sets his sights on Lucius and his old friend, leaving Caleb to fend for himself in the unfamiliar city. Luckily, a petty thief with a heart of gold, Bible J, picks up Caleb, trying to shield him from the Fantom and the authorities.

The ongoing threat of the Fantom soon brings Eve, Bible J and Caleb together, all looking to save themselves, or the ones they love, from the end of his razor, even as the police themselves are closing in in an attempt to solve the mystery of where the Fantom comes from.

This book was a chore to get through most of the time. On Sunday evening I found myself 30 pages from the end, in the middle of the climax, and really not caring about how it ended. I forced myself to finish, but reaching that final page was a relief - it was all over!

The narration was all over the place, which made it hard to connect with any of the characters. Most of the book is told from a third person narrative perspective, with occasional first person insights from Eve's journal. However, each of these parts were so short that it was often hard to keep track of one narrative thread. For the first half of the book I was motivated to keep reading because I really wanted to learn how all of these different characters - an amnesiac girl, a blind man, a petty thief, a spiritualist fraud, a rich scientist and his son, a sergeant and inspector in Scotland Yard, and the criminal Fantom to name, well, most of them - were connected. I figured out some, but others were a mystery until close to the end, and quite frankly I just didn't care after awhile because it became so convoluted.

Eve's character also annoyed me a lot because she was written to be so passive. It turns out there's a reason for that in the end...but the scene in which that revelation is made isn't entirely satisfactory, either. To avoid giving too many spoilers, I'll just say that Eve is continually defined by her relationships with men. There's a short time where she seems to break free of that mold while working in the circus, until her love interest comes along and she is reclaimed.

Caleb, our other protagonist, isn't that well developed, either. He rarely acts, choosing instead to react to the madness around him. This makes sense initially, as he's clearly out of his element in Pastworld, but eventually kept me from ever becoming involved with his character.

Ultimately it became difficult for me to believe that Pastworld would be allowed to continue to exist the way it did. All of the citizens are essentially actors with permits to be allowed to live out their roles. This seems to be common knowledge, yet it's also common knowledge that people are routinely murdered while inside Pastworld. How could that be considered a tourist attraction? I never had a real moral qualm with people visiting the historical village in Running Out of Time because the visitors were told only the youngest children were unaware of the outside world and no one knew  vaccines were purposefully being withheld. Compare this with something like the titular prison in Incarceron, another instance of one society living inside another, unaware or unsure if there's another world outside. It makes sense that the prison exists as a circle of hell because the outside world is willfully ignorant. I'm pretty sure that if there were a serial killer in Colonial Williamsburg, the place would be shut down ASAP until the killer was apprehended. Unless the place is run by the mayor from Jaws.

So while the initial premise excited me, ultimately the story was bogged down by apparent implausibility and too many shallow characters. Also? You're going to have to work really hard to get me to really enjoy a book with only one major female characters, and among the other three, only one gets a regularly used name (the other two are the bearded lady and the cat lady). Was there a reason why everyone else had to be a dude?
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