Terry Pratchett's latest novel, Dodger, isn't a Discworld book, except, well, it kind of is. Nominally, this is an historical novel, a fictionalized account of the fictionalized person who inspired Mr Charlie Dickens to create his much-beloved character The Artful Dodger. But as the story unfolds, the parallels between the early Victorian London of Dickens (and Mayhew) and the Ankh-Morpork of Pratchett's Discworld novels become sharper and clearer, so that by the end, we're reading a story that really could be set in either one of those fantastical places, and what's more, there's a kind of vividness to Dodger that comes, I think, from its proximity to the origin of Pratchett's inspiration, a cask-strength version of what makes Pratchett so addictive and so loved.
Dodger tells the story of a young street-urchin, a "geezer" who is known throughout the tenements of central London as a dashing and fearless character. Dodger is a "tosher," a young man who scrounges in the sewers of London for coins and jewels and little bits and pieces that wash up, and he worships the Lady, a deity descended from the Roman goddess Cloacina, the patron of the sewers the Romans carved out beneath Londinium. He is fearless, noble, but also lightfingered, with a cheeky propensity for making off with anything that isn't nailed down or buttoned firmly in a gentleman's coat-pocket.
Dodger starts one night in the sewers, when Dodger hears the cries of a woman in distress from above. While in Discworld, this distress might be hinted at and painted in vague, impressionistic strokes, here it is as vivid as Dickens: the woman whose rescue Dodger leaps to is being horribly beaten by a gang of thugs, whom Dodger lashes out at, dealing out fast and furious blows until they run off. As he tends to the woman, he meets Charlie Dickens and Henry Mayhew, the first of two historical personages to make an appearance in the pages of Dodger (others include Queen Victoria, Benjamin Disraeli, and Sweeney Todd).
So begins the story of Dodger's coming of age. He and the woman he rescues fall in love, but the men who hunted her are still chasing after her, driven by a great imperial house of Europe whose king would see her dead. Against this backdrop, Dodger must both beat the assassins and thugs on his trail, and also find his true love's way clear of the deadly intrigue, all the while mixing in the alien environs of high society -- and journalistic circles -- whom he is introduced to by Dickens.
Dodger features some of Pratchett's most engaging characters yet -- which is saying something! -- inasmuch as these people are allowed to experience and react to the mercilessly cruel world of Victorian London, which Pratchett is fearless about describing. This isn't a book for the squeamish, but then, neither is Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor, which Pratchett describes as the genesis for this novel in an author's afterword.
Which is not to say that Dodger lacks the humor that makes Pratchett so beloved. This is a book that is every bit as funny as any Discworld novel, and includes Pratchett's signature trick of hiding the gravity of the world in absurdity, a very serious pill wrapped up in a fluffy, sweet confection.
What's more, Dodger features the most satisfying climax and denouement of any Pratchett novel of my recollection, a thunderous final chord that lingers and stretches. It's a masterwork from a treasure and hero of a writer, and it will delight you.
Published 6:09 am Thu, Oct 11, 2012
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