Terry Pratchett takes a surprising --- and undoubtedly delightful --- departure from Discworld with DODGER, a reimagining of Victorian history and literature.
Lately, I've been reading Terry Pratchett's Tiffany Aching books to my nine-year-old son. It's been fun to revisit the wit and whimsy of Pratchett's fantasy world through his eyes. Although Pratchett is by far best known for his fantasy novels, especially his wildly imaginative creation, Discworld, it's easy to forget that Pratchett is a straight-up outstanding writer regardless of the genre. His latest novel for young people, DODGER, is a delightful reminder of that fact, as Pratchett moves about as far from fantasy as he ever has.
"Dodger is a fully-developed character, as fascinating and multi-faceted as the world he occupies. Readers will come away not only with a better understanding of Victorian realities --- for all kinds of people --- but also with a sympathetic portrayal of a young man poised between two worlds."
DODGER is, to be sure, something of a reinvention of Victorian history, as Pratchett acknowledges in the author's note that closes the book. But it's still set in the very real environment of nineteenth-century London, with all its sights, sounds, and especially smells. Pratchett's London is gritty, bawdy, and sometimes dangerous; the kind of London that Charles Dickens would no doubt recognize. Appropriate, too, since Dickens himself plays a major role in the novel, as the mentor of our protagonist, Dodger.
Dodger is what's known as a "tosher," making his dubious living by sloshing through London's sewer system, searching for spare change, jewelry, or anything else of value that might have landed in this great underground labyrinth. Being a tosher is hard, dirty, and often dangerous work, but Dodger is very good at it. He's also very good at fighting, a skill that comes in handy right at the book's opening, when he rescues a young woman who is being roughed up. Soon, the attractive young woman, known only as Simplicity, is secreted away to the home of Dickens's friend and colleague, Henry Mayhew, an early sociologist and social reformer. But Dodger begins to suspect that Simplicity is not really out of danger, and, prompted by Dickens's guidance, he begins to investigate the case. Perhaps Dodger will not be a tosher forever --- but does he really want to leave his dodgy roots behind?
Pratchett is clearly having a blast creating his take on Victorian literature. He drops in cameos by Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, John Tenniel (the illustrator of Alice in Wonderland) and even Sweeney Todd, the "demon barber of Fleet Street." Fans of Dickens will also delight in seeing Pratchett imagine the inspirations for several of Dickens's characters, including, of course, both the Artful Dodger and Fagin but also Mrs. Malaprop and other characters.
As much fun as this is, though, DODGER also has a more serious side. Pratchett notes in his afterword that part of his intention was to shed light on the plight of the desperately poor and disenfranchised who populated London at a time when it was the richest and most powerful city in the world. The political and ethical ramifications for today's society are evident, and DODGER will certainly give readers plenty to reflect upon, even as they're being massively entertained by Pratchett's clever wit and galloping pace. Dodger is a fully-developed character, as fascinating and multi-faceted as the world he occupies. Readers will come away not only with a better understanding of Victorian realities --- for all kinds of people --- but also with a sympathetic portrayal of a young man poised between two worlds.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on October 12, 2012