You could be forgiven, I suppose, for spending all of your time reading the works of the late Terry Pratchett simply exploring the wonders of the Discworld. And, to be sure, that would be a deeply satisfying way to spend your time (and I recommend it). But to do that would be to ignore some of the great books that Pratchett wrote outside of that series, like the remarkable Bromeliad Trilogy, the thought-provoking Nation, and now, Pratchett’s foray into 18th century England (and the world of Charles Dickens), Dodger.
Despite what the title might suggest, there’s no direct connection between Dodger and the works of Charles Dickens; even if there were a book that happened to feature a character with a similar name, that’s more because Pratchett’s imaginary tosher (a slang term for those who root for treasures among the drainage and sewers of England) could be an inspiration for Dickens’ imagination. But Dodger is undeniably a purely Pratchett creation: a streetwise, playful, cynical (yet soft-hearted) rogue who makes a living for himself, feels a bit larger than life, and who can’t help but want to improve the world as he sees it, even if he’d deny that. More than that, he’s a richly and undeniably researches character, one whose dialogue is full of 18th century slang, who feels like a genuinely street-educated child rather than an author playing dumb, and whose actions feel of a piece with his complicated morality.
That goes doubly for the rich, marvelous world that Pratchett creates, thanks (according to the author himself) in no small part to the research of Henry Mayhew, a contemporary of Dickens who researched conditions among the working poor in London at the time. In Pratchett’s hands, Dodger brings to life a city defined by a massive social and economic divide, to say nothing of the intrigue of the upper classes, the scars of a recent war, and more. It’s a vivid, wondrous tapestry that Pratchett has created, and he populates it with characters both non-fictional (Dickens and Mayhew both make appearances, as does Robert Peel, and other various figures) and fictional, including an infamous “demon” barber of the time that Pratchett uses as the centerpiece for one of his most effective, quietly powerful points. And not content to only use the creations of others, Pratchett does his usual magnificent character building work, with my favorite being Dodger’s Jewish protector, teacher, and friend Solomon Cohen.
The only weakness of Dodger – well, maybe it’s more of a flaw, because there’s really nothing bad about the book, just an aspect that’s not as strong as the rest – is the plot, which is serviceable, but really just functions as a way to string together the various incidents of the novel. That’s Pratchett’s style, of course – it’s what makes the Discworld books so incredible and joyous – but Dodger feels a little more focused by virtue of its single main character, and the wandering story sometimes feels a little sloppy. There’s some fascinating aspects, mind you, and the central hook – in which Dodger saves a young woman from a beating, only to discover that it’s involved him in some massive intrigue on a governmental level – is a good one. But the final showdown feels a bit silly, involving an ultra-capable government assassin character who feels out of step with the rest of the novel.
And yet, that’s a flaw of the book, but it’s a minor one, and one that certainly doesn’t take away from the joy of the book. As always, Pratchett is a master of commenting on the world around him through the medium of his writing and fiction, and Dodger is no exception, using 18th-century England as a way of commenting on how little things may have changed over the years. More than that, Dodger is another reminder of Pratchett’s wonderful, magical prose, which brings characters to life through little more than their remarkable, distinct voices. And adding that to the rich world creation he’s doing here…well, it all makes for a great read, even with that flaw. But do you really expect anything else from Pratchett?