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Book review: “Dodger” by Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett’s new novel “Dodger” strikes me as his most personal book.

He calls it “a historical fantasy…simply for the fun of it.” Yet, it’s much different from the 51 fantasies that he has produced since 1971, including his Discworld Series (40 books so far).

And it’s doesn’t share much with the straight-ahead speculative science fiction that he and co-author Stephen Baxter offered in “The Long Earth,” which hit bookstores in June.

Instead of the science fiction of “The Long Earth,” Pratchett offers a history lesson in “Dodger” about London early in the Victorian era — a horrid, noxious and deadly place for anyone poor. Rather than an imaginative look into the future, he is taking an imaginative look back.

A tosher

The central character is Dodger, a 17-year-old who survived childhood in an orphanage and now lives by his wits, mostly as a tosher, i.e., someone who scavenges through the sewers of London searching for valuables.

There is humor in “Dodger.” For instance, Pratchett explains that, originally, the sewers were built by the Romans for rainwater, but, by this time, rich Londoners had begun connecting their cesspits to the drainage system.

Dodger thought it was really unfair. It was bad enough with all the rats down here, without having to make certain you didn’t step in a richard.*

That asterisk leads the reader to a footnote:

Cockney rhyming slang, short for Richard the Third, which rather happily rhymes with another interesting word.


Typical Pratchett silliness (and, as it happens, historically accurate). However, such levity is relatively rare in “Dodger,” at least compared with Pratchett’s usual fantasies where every page is filled with puns, wacky names, goofy characters and slapstick situations.

There are historical figures who have greater or lesser roles in this novel, including Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria, Robert Peel and Benjamin Disraeli, and Pratchett works hard to accurately describe the way people of that time talked and dressed, where they lived and how they lived.

But, as Pratchett insists in an epilogue, this isn’t a historical novel. The history and those personages aren’t the central focus of the book.

“Dodger” might be described as mystery and a thriller. Yet, it doesn’t fit those genres well either. The scene, for example, when comeuppance is inflicted upon a hired killer, is a bit anticlimactic.

That’s because the climax isn’t in the solving of the mystery and the thwarting of bad guys which happens around page 316.

The real climax

The actual climax comes over the following 30 or so pages which chronicle the successful attempt of Dodger and his lady love to find happiness and a future.

“Dodger,” in fact, is a love story. A story of many loves.

It’s about the unusual courtship of Dodger and that lady love, a courtship that seems particularly important to Pratchett. (I wonder if, perhaps, it may mirror in some symbolic way his own courtship with the woman who became his wife.)

It is also, I think, rooted in a love of Charles Dickens. In this novel, Dodger frequently says something that Dickens scribbles down and will — we readers know — put to use at some future date. Such as when Dodger says, “I know the people who are my betters would like to see [his lady love] shut away in some bleak house somewhere…”

I also get the sense that Pratchett loves Victorian London with a special ardor. Much of the city that he portrays here as a factual place can be found — a bit warped and slightly reconfigured and jazzed up in some way, as if with octarine magic — in his Discworld books.

And then…

And then there’s God.

In his Discworld novels, Pratchett has toyed here and there with the ideas of religion, faith and the Deity. In “Dodger,” those speculations, focused on the Lady of the sewers — a sort of patron saint of the toshers — seem more intentional, more insistent.

Charlie said, “Are you telling me, Dodger, that you truly believe that there is some kind of a goddess in the sewers?”

“No, sir, not a goddess, not for the likes of us…Gods and goddesses are for the likes of people who go to church, sir. They laugh at people like us, but she doesn’t. There’s no salvation, sir, not with her, because there is nothing to be saved from, sir. But, like I say, if you get on well with her, then one day she might show you something of great worth Everybody’s got to believe in something; that’s all it takes.”

Terry Pratchett has made a hugely successful career out of humor and fantasy.

In “Dodger,” he makes a deeply felt story out of love and faith.

Patrick T. Reardon

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