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Let's be honest, these days Terry Pratchett could publish his shopping list and it would top the best seller's charts. And it would still be funny, cynical and interesting. It's no surprise, then, to see Dodger (nominally a children's book) topping the charts, even though it's not a Discworld book.
Dodger is a Victorian Tosher. No; that's not an insult from someone missing a few teeth, it's a term for someone who digs around in the sewers in the hopes of finding lost coins, jewellery and other valuables. Returning from a night's toshing, Dodger comes to the aid of a young woman who is being badly beaten by a couple of thugs. Once he has rescued her, he starts to take a keen interest in her; her past and her future.
Personally I felt that Dodger suffers from something of an identity crisis. It's published by Doubleday Children's, which immediately sets you thinking it's aimed at a certain age group. Elsewhere, it is branded as Young Adult fiction, which perhaps has slightly different connotations; yet the reality is that, one or two obvious things, it's not noticeably different from Pratchett's usual offerings.
On the one hand, this is A Good Thing. It means that does not patronise his audience Pratchett (unlike many adult authors who turn to children's books). He treats his younger readers as intelligent beings who will understand and appreciate the references he makes without having them all carefully explained (although one or two of the more obscure ones are explained via footnotes). By the same token, this means that with just a small mental adjustment, Dodger is just as readable for Pratchett's army of older readers.
At the same time, though, it does lead to some issues. Sometimes, for example, Pratchett makes references to sex or sexual matters. Mindful of the potential younger readership, he couches these in somewhat ambiguous terms. If you understand what he is getting at, this actually adds to them and makes them even funnier; if you don't, then you'll be wondering what on earth he is talking about. Elsewhere, there is actually more explicit swearing than in any of the Discworld books, which might make for some awkward conversations with younger readers. As such, Dodger sometimes feels slightly confused as to who its audience really is.
It's also a pity that this is a somewhat sanitised version of Victorian history. Whilst the darker side of Victorian England is hinted at, the crushing, grinding poverty that was the fate of all too many people is glibly brushed aside. OK, so Pratchett trying to portray a positive, uplifting story; a rags-to-riches tale of a Young Boy Done Good, not a historically accurate account of Victorian London. On the other hand, Pratchett of all people should know that words have power and his account of a London full of lovable scamps and poor, but happy people warps the historical reality. It also makes it all the more curious when, at the end of the book, he is at pains to talk about the squalor and misery of Victorian London. If he wanted to educate people about the horrors of Victorian London, why not do it in the main narrative instead of perpetuating the myth of chirpy Cockneys?
As you would expect from such a seasoned author, Dodger is a very well-written book. Pratchett provides enough information about Victorian London (or at least some aspects of it) to establish Dodger's world convincingly. The main characters - particularly Dodger and his mentor Solomon - are brilliant creations that light up the page. They share the same characteristics as Pratchett's best creations, in that they are charming, cynical, amusing, cheeky, vulnerable and naive - sometimes all at the same time. Dodger is a fun character to be with and whilst his rapid ascension from the dregs of society to the upper echelons in less than a week is somewhat unbelievable, you don't begrudge him.
Where the book is a real delight is in Pratchett's playful approach to literature. He cleverly works into the narrative a whole host of real historical figures who cross Dodger's path. OK, so some are integrated more successfully and more convincingly than others and the likelihood of the lowly Dodger coming to the attention of Charles Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli, Henry Mayhew and a whole host of other distinguished Victorians in the space of a single week is infinitesimally small, but I'm prepared to overlook that because the interaction between Dodger and these various people is fun.
It's here that it's most clear that this is a book aimed at an audience of different ages and levels of knowledge. You can read Dodger as nothing more than a straightforward story with some amusing incidents -and if you're at the younger end of the readership scale, that's exactly what you'll do. If you're a bit older (and possibly wiser), you will start to note that Pratchett has littered his text with oblique references to the novels of Charles Dickens which are fun to try and spot. Some of these are really obvious; others are rather more subtle, hidden in chunks of otherwise seemingly inconsequential dialogue.
The book perhaps loses some focus towards the end and the need to tie everything up with a big red bow is perhaps where it most betrays its origin as a book for younger readers. There is an extremely unlikely ending (both in the context of the book and the historical setting) and this suggests that Pratchett felt the need to provide a Happy Ending (of sorts) to keep his younger readers happy. Certainly, the book reached a point where I felt it should have ended, but didn't.
Despite its many strengths, I never quite enjoyed Dodger as much as I thought I would or should. For some reason, I found it difficult to get into and engage with. Normally when reading Pratchett books, I don't want to stop; with Dodger, keeping going was sometimes a bit of a chore. It wasn't that I wasn't enjoying it; it's just that I wasn't engaging with it quite as much as usual. Maybe the simpler plot wasn't as satisfying; perhaps it was the slower pace... I don't know. All I know is that it just lacked that little Pratchett spark.
Dodger is not a bad book. The trouble is: it's not a great one either. It's that rarest of things - an average Terry Pratchett book. Perhaps that's what was most disappointing: by his own high standards, this was a little inconsequential.
Dodger is currently available in hardback and Kindle format for about £9, but if I were you I'd wait until the paperback edition comes out and get it cheaper. Better still wait until you can pick up a copy second hand.
Doubleday Children's, 2012
(c) Copyright SWSt 2013