Book Review: Dodger, by Terry Pratchett
After what was for WC the disappointing science fiction novel, The Long Earth, WC had some concern that Sir Terry’s latest book, Dodger, might be a similar let down. Needless worry, as it turns out. Dodger is a terrific story, very well written and a seamless blend of history and fantasy.
Set in the early years of Queen Victoria’s London, it tells the story of Dodger, orphan, guttersnipe and geezer, a tosher in the sewers of a vividly described, smelly and dirty London. From Dodger’s point of view.
“But those in the know always said about the London rain that, try as it might, it would never, ever clean that noisome city, because all it did was show you another layer of dirt. And on this dirty night there were dirty deeds that not even the rain could wash away.”
And on that night and in that storm, Dodger rescues a young lady from a beating. And sets his feet on a path that Charles Dickens would recognize immediately. In fact, one of the first characters Dodger meets is that very Charlie Dickens.
It isn’t just the rescue that changes Dodger’s life. The morning after the rainstorm, as he is trolling the sewers for treasure, he finds fellow tosher Grandad, impaled and dying on sharp timbers, pinned by the flooding waters from the rainstorm. Grandad, the oldest tosher in the business, is just 31 years old. Dodger, as we watch, absorbs the cold reality of his future as a tosher.
And as Dodger’s world expands beyond his knowledge of the London sewer system, we learn about London. Dodger meets the homicidal barber, Sweeney Todd, British statesman Benjamin Disraeli, the founder of modern police forces, Sir Robert Peel along with a host of others. But Pratchett never lets the history or the historic figures detract from his story. They lend an aura of historic realism, although there is prolepsis, as Pratchett cheerfully acknowledges. Dodger is sketched by John Tenniel for Punch magazine, about ten years before Tenniel drew his first cartoon for Punch. Oh, and Dodger notices the incipient mustache.
Yes, there is romance. Pratchett skillfully and plausibly includes Dodger’s head over heels infatuation with the lady he rescued. And yes, there is adventure, because Dodger is, after all, Dodger. And if you believe Pratchett, Dodger is the inspiration for a Dickens character, along with the phrase, “great expectations.”
There are moments of terror, moments of the signature Pratchett laugh-out-loud humor, and the wonderful humanism that characterizes all of Pratchett’s work. As he has in Discworld stories, Pratchett finds nothing amusing in the Punch and Judy puppet shows; instead, he uses them with great effect to cause Dodger to reflect on how we are taught to laugh at things that really aren’t very funny. And Pratchett makes you laugh as he is doing so.
This is a delightful book, technically, WC supposes, a young adult story, because the protagonist is a young adult. But it is a terrific read, a break from Discworld for those who might not appreciate pure fantasy. There is much to admire about Sir Terry; despite a very serious health condition, he continues to produce absolutely first rate novels.
And Dodger is one of them.
 A geezer is a man – in this case, a lad – of resource, who is recognized as such in his small corner of the world.
 A person who supports himself by searching for coins and valuables in the sewers. A better job than a chimney sweep, whatever impression Dick Van Dyke may have given you.
 Prolepsis, the representation or assumption of a future act or development as if presently existing or accomplished.
 Theater of Cruelty, a Discworld short story.