Dodger, by Terry Pratchett
In Dodger, Terry Pratchett’s latest novel (ostensibly for young adults, though sure to be enjoyed by old adults as well), we have a rare beast indeed – a non-fantastical Pratchett book. There are no gods, no talking animals, no magic (or magyck), no science fiction – and as I look back over the scores of Pratchett novels I have read, this would appear to be a new departure. So, how does one of the bestselling novelists of all time handle this new scenario he has made for himself?
Brilliantly, as if you even had to ask. Dodger is an historical fantasy set in Victorian London. While the title character’s name is a clear allusion to Oliver Twist (though this Dodger never describes himself as artful), the novel sets out to play with our expectations – this is not just a pastiche. While Dodger does live with an elderly Jewish gentleman, his friend and landlord is no Fagin – he’s a refugee from European pogroms, and a highly skilled craftsman. Dodger may be somewhat light-fingered but he mostly gets by ‘on the tosh’, combing the ancient sewers of London for discarded valuables.
When Dodger rescues a mysterious young lady from the malign attentions of some violent thugs, he is drawn in to a plot that will eventually see him rubbing shoulders with the rich and powerful – for the young woman he comes to love is on the run from a callous husband, and it’s all politics. Dodger must use his low cunning to spirit her away while allowing the politicians to save face, allowing him to demonstrate considerable invention and a lot of nerve.
Along the way, Dodger meets a young Charles Dickens (who may get one or two ideas along the way!) , Henry Mayhew, Sir Robert Peel, Benjamin Disraeli, Joseph Bazalgette and other Victorian luminaries – and ultimately demonstrates Victorian social mobility in action. There is a series educational side to Dodger, which sets out to subtly teach the reader about the workings of Dickensian London and what it meant to be poor back then – Pratchett has always had a strong seam of morality running through his best work, but it never overshadows the trademark humour and of course the fundamental humanity of the story.
A very enjoyable book, and a pleasant new departure for Sir Terry that brings London to life in a way that only he can.