Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Dodger, by Terry Pratchett

Complete with elements of what he calls “historical fantasy,” Terry Pratchett’s Dodger was an easy choice for me to review, being a fan of both those things. And with solid writing, enough historical intrigue to hook readers, and a snappy pace, Dodger is a solid choice.

Set in early-Victorian London, Dodger follows, as one might guess, a character named Dodger, who bears a striking resemblance to Dickens’ classic rascal. The titular narrator makes his way around a filthy, foggy, poverty-stricken London, acting sometimes as hero, sometimes as scoundrel, but always as wily survivor. And speaking of Dickens, Dodger is filled with cameos from the time period, including Charlie himself, Henry Mayhew (who’s that?), Sir Robert Peel and even the demon barber himself, Sweeney Todd. Each has a significant effect on the story; Pratchett uses them not as set-pieces, but as players in the drama, developing their personalities along the way.

After witnessing and subsequently breaking up the beating of a young woman on a stormy night, Dodger is discovered by Dickens and Mayhew, who give the woman shelter. The girl, it turns out, has a secret that could potentially start (what could have been) the first world war. With his ragged band of historical figures, Dodger sets out to save this girl named Simplicity, whom he’s fallen for. Along the way, he gets a close shave from Sweeney Todd, rubs shoulders with the upper-class and even unintentionally provides Dickens with most of his later writing.

Dodger was at its best when it was on the run, much like its main character. The quick pacing and shady dealings in the alleys and sewers of London made for fun reading, and many young readers will appreciate the sense of instant gratification Dodger provides. Also high points, of course, are the bits of “accidental history” that happen. When Charlie Dickens says, “Dodger, I have great expectations for you,” stops dead in his tracks, and scribbles something down in his notebook, it’s fun. Not necessarily subtle, but fun for a young reader nonetheless. Pratchett also paints a vivid yet grim tapestry of 19th-century London, complete with period-specific slang. In Dodger, things aren’t fancy, they’re “nobby”; Dodger lives in a “crib” (which, strangely enough, was back in style for at least the first half of the 20-oughts); and “snakesman” might be a more apt name for a cat burglar. It may trip readers up initially, but with context clues and perhaps even a quick Google search, they will pick it up and let it add to Pratchett’s well-built setting. It’s also a book good for a few laughs; the characters are sarcastic and Pratchett has a pretty good sense for humor. For instance, calling someone a “successful tosher” implies they’re very good at digging through sewer waste for lost change.

Where Dodger trips up is its lack of mystery. It’s a story that’s always moving, and it creates a feeling of “see what happens next” rather than a sense of “I wonder what happens next.” Readers will appreciate the quick pace, but I found myself wishing Pratchett’s quick story would get a step ahead of me more often. It moves fast, but it’s a little too easy to keep up. There was one twist that caught me by surprise, but much of the action could be guessed before it happened.

It’s probably not fit for a full lesson plan, but Dodger provides a fun read for the student interested in fantasy, history or who is drawn to adventure tales. Pratchett has a proven track record and an impressive bibliography with his Discworld series. Dodger could even open that expansive world to young readers, which will provide years of quality reading. Its ties to history are obvious, even if some of the nonfictional characters’ timelines were adjusted to coincide with the story’s events. It’s a fun romp through a time period immortalized in other novels, many of which students will also be reading.

I also found this. As you can see, Dodger's a right tough chap:



JessicaGeelen said...

This sounds like a really interesting read! I love books that cameo famous figures. It really does draw you in more and even encourages you to find out more about those people as well.
Based on your write-up, I could definitely see myself reading and definitely enjoying this book!

Samantha said...

I can't say that I've ever read a "historical fantasy" book, but it definitely sounds like something I would be interested in! It sounds like it could also be a good way to get students more interested in history. If they already like fantasy books, this could be a good way to introduce them to historical fiction while having those fantasy aspects there to keep their interest.