Welcome to Pastworld. Imagine that London has been reinvented as a theme park; that Dickensian London has been recreated in every detail. Rich tourists undergo immersion training, get costumed and are then brought in by airship to become ‘gawkers’ in this new, old world. Caleb, son of Lucius Brown, one of the park’s original imagineers, is due to arrive for his first visit with his father.
Pastworld is peopled by the ‘residents’, most of whom officially live and work there as Victorians, giving the punters an authentic experience. But there are also some unofficials – pickpockets, fences and entertainers, plus ‘The Fantom’, who has taken on the unofficial role of Jack the Ripper and is working with a band of ‘ragged men’ to strike terror throughout the city. The park’s owners are very, very worried indeed, and they send in a detective to hunt him down.
The last piece of the puzzle is seventeen year old Eve who lives with her father Jack; she has no memories of anything before the age of fifteen. In Truman Show style, she doesn’t know she is living in a theme park. However she is never allowed to go out on her own and is beginning to wonder why. Jack returns from an excursion out and starts to explain a little to her:
‘I have to tell you something, Eve’ he said, in an unsteady voice. ‘You may often have wondered why I look after you so carefully. The truth is that someone is after us. They have been for a long while now. I have deliberately kept this from you, Eve, just for your own protection. I have always been so very, very careful for you. But anyhow this bad, bad person has got a sniff of you, and as soon as it can be arranged we will have to move somewhere else. Somewhere far from here.’
He stood and paced up and down in a twitching panic. I could make no sense of it at all. Here was my mystery.
‘How would such a dangerous person know anything about us?’ I said.
‘He knows,’ Jack said nodding. ‘As I said, he’s got a sniff of you.’
Something alerted me in those repeated words: ‘A sniff of you’. That surely meant it is not ‘us’ at all but just me alone, myself – someone is especially after me. It was suddenly clear to me.
I am a deep secret.
I am a hidden person.
I am to be kept safe for ever. I was a fairy-tale princess, like Rapunzel, locked away from the world in her high tower.
This is the first novel for young adults from children’s author Ian Beck, which has plenty for grown-ups to admire too. I thoroughly enjoyed its cultural touchstones, murderous action and twisty plot. I particularly liked the interleaving of the futuristic and Victorian milieux which resulted in much more than a straight-forward melodrama. Without spoiling anything, there is plenty of room for a sequel (please?).