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Friday May 24, 2013

Artful hero

Terry Pratchett mixes fantasy with history in this young adult book set in Victorian London.


Author: Terry Pratchett

Publisher: Doubleday, 368 pages

THE Dodger is a tosher, a sewer scavenger who navigates the city’s underbelly looking for coins, shiny baubles and other lost treasures.

One dark and stormy night, our artful hero comes across a young damsel in distress leaping from a carriage, and proceeds to save her from two louts who were about to do unspeakable things to her.

In the process, the young lad is sucked into a world of trouble, one that is of a significantly higher class (and better smelling) than he is used to, as he tries to help the girl escape her troubles with the help of a well-spoken journalist/writer named ... Charlie Dickens.

Yes, Charles Dickens himself is a character in a book that sees him meeting and helping Dodger, a character from Oliver Twist, a book by the real Charles Dickens. And if that wasn’t mind-warping enough for you, the Dodger also meets other real and fictional characters, such as the throat-slitting barber Sweeney Todd, former British Prime Minster Robert Peel (the real man founded the London police force), and heiress Angela Burdett-Coutts (who, according to Pratchett’s acknowledgements, was “the richest woman in the world at the time, apart from a queen here or there”).

This may not be one of Pratchett’s books from the more popular Discworld series, but the world it occupies is also a fantasy world of sorts, populated by well-known literary names and characters co-existing in an early Victorian-age London that somehow reminds one of Discworld’s sprawling Ankh Morpokh metropolis (with cleaner sewers, if that is even possible).

It’s such a wonderfully warped yet artfully constructed little world that I wouldn’t have been surprised if some alien tripods showed up and blow up London only for the city to be saved by the Nautilus, emerging from the depths of the Thames River (Oh wait, I think that’s something from Alan Moore’s League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen).

To Pratchett’s credit, he doesn’t turn Dodger into a how-many-famous-people-and-characters-can-I-stuff-into-this-book exercise. Of all his standalone, non-Discworld books, I probably enjoyed this one the most – the somewhat philosophical Nation (2008), though entertaining, hardly registered in my mind after I had finished it, while his collaboration with Stephen Baxter, The Long Earth (2012), was more memorable for not being a typical Pratchett book than anything else. With Dodger, Pratchett’s writing is funnier, and the jokes come a lot more naturally. It actually feels like he is having loads of fun with his characters, especially the titular hero.

Sharp, streetwise, and artful, of course, Dodger is a main character who is instantly likeable and whom you will immediately want to root for. His rise from street urchin to the upper echelons of society is a journey you desperately want him to complete, even though it sometimes feels as though Pratchett is making it way too easy for him.

While the author admits in his acknowledgements that “certain tweaks were needed to get people in the right place at the right time”, probably only historical nitpickers will begrudge him this artistic license. This is, after all, a “fantasy based on a reality”, a “historical fantasy, and certainly not a historical novel”, which Pratchett wrote to get people interested in that fascinating era.

If that was his main objective, then he certainly succeeded. While reading the book, I was constantly researching names that popped up, just to see what their real-life counterparts did. And while the Victorian slang he uses in the dialogue was a little challenging at times, it added to the authenticity of the era and made the story that much more engrossing (not to mention the use of the word “richards” to describe er ... human excrement made for some hilarious sentences).

Dodger feels like a calming reassurance from the ailing Pratchett, who is suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. With this book (and the next Discworld book, Raising Steam, to be published later this year), it feels like he is telling us that yes, he is still around, and yes, he is still writing, pretty well too. So don’t write him off just yet, thank you very much.


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