Considering how much I love Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, I have been impatiently awaiting his latest book–even if it isn’t Discworld. Dodger is not quite on the level of the best Discworld, but it was a fun read of its own.
To clarify one thing at the beginning, the book is not really about the Artful Dodger from Oliver Twist–at least, not exactly. Say rather it’s a young man who could be the inspiration for the Artful Dodger–considering his connections to Charlie Dickens, and all.
Dodger is a tosher by trade, a seventeen year old boy who makes his living searching through the sewers of Victorian London in search of lost coins, jewelry and other treasure. And if occasionally things happen to fall out of their owner’s possession and into Dodger’s hands, well, who is he to dispute with a bit of good fortune? Everyone knows Dodger, and everyone knows Dodger never gets caught.
There’s no Fagin, but there is Solomon, a wise old Jewish watchmaker who gives Dodger a place to sleep and helps him stay on the straightish and somewhat narrow path. There’s no Oliver Twist, but there is Simplicity, a young woman Dodger rescues from a couple of thugs–a young woman who turns out to have crowned heads of Europe intensely interested in her. His efforts to help her will take Dodger into a whole new part of society and bring big changes into his life.
All in all, I didn’t love the book, but there is a great deal here to like very much. There’s enormous fun in the various historical figures Dodger’s path crosses–from Fleet Street journalist Charlie Dickens to up-and-coming politican Benjamin Disraeli, and a host of others I didn’t have enough historical grounding to recognize (but there’s a helpful afterword). We also wander into fictional territory when Dodger meets Sweeney Todd, more sad than demonic and a powerful lesson about the tendency of the world to create the story they want to hear.
Dodger’s character growth throughout the book is excellent. At first, he seems a little too noble (in the character sense) for a boy on the streets, but as the book develops and his character does too, it fits more easily. It’s not an easy growth, and Dodger finds a certain loss of identity (or at least uncertainty) in his sudden rise in standing and character.
My favorite things are a couple of character quirks. First, especially near the beginning, Dickens has a tendency to make a remark, get a look in his eye, and hastily jot something down–as when he made a reference to “our mutual friend.” I would have loved even more Dickens quotes sprinkled throughout–though there may have been more that I just missed. Second, I love Solomon’s religious life. He frequently explains situations to God, perhaps when someone is doing something a bit, well, dodgy. But Solomon will make matters clear to Him, in a lightly humorous and never offensive way. It has much the same feel as the beginning of the song “If I Were a Rich Man” in Fiddler on the Roof.
My least favorite thing…well, I found out a bit more than I really needed to know about Victorian sewers, and I could have lived with far fewer references to, shall we say, Victorian waste, human and animal, in and out of sewers. The most recent Discworld book featured an interest in bathroom humor, and I sincerely hope this is a short-lived trend in Pratchett’s writing. It’s more often nasty than funny, and frankly, I know he’s more clever than to need to resort to that.
Still, this is a fun trip through Victorian London with solid characters and a plot with a few good twists. Don’t come here expecting the high hilarity of Discworld, but it is an enjoyable historical novel.