(2012) Terry Pratchett, Doubleday, £18.99, hrdbk, 356pp, ISBN 978-0-385-61927-1
I was almost going to start this review by saying: here we have Dodger, the latest book by Sir Tel (Pratchett, that is, not Wogan), but the ever-prolific author already has another book out, albeit a collection of his short fiction called A Blink of the Screen (with a foreword by A. S. Byatt, no less). Though, strictly speaking A Blink of the Screen is not a brand new, original work, instead its merely – ha – a collection of previously published stories brought together under one roof, or between two covers. Despite his well-publicised battle with Alzheimer’s, or perhaps because of it, Pratchett seems to be even more prolific than ever, having written The Long Earth with science fiction writer, Stephen Baxter, adding to his Discworld canon with The World of Poo (as well as contributing to various Discworld spin-offs, be they guides, maps, or calendars); producing his short story collection and of course completing Dodger his latest novel for children, which is a non-Discworld book, and is non-magic, but has been labelled a historical fantasy, mashing the real with the unreal to produce a book of social history – some of the characters and the situations they encounter may be fictional, but the sometimes terrible world they inhabit is not.
At least Pratchett does not follow the example of Anthony Horowitz in his new Sherlock Holmes novel The House of Silk which ended with a list of 'don’ts' or 'do not'” which he was determined to stick too, even at the cost of producing a slightly lacklustre affair. One of Horowitz’s rules was to have no real people in the plot, something that Pratchett avoids, right from the start as Dodger comes to the aid of a young woman who has been badly beaten is trying to escape from some thugs, and is immediately befriending by 'Charlie' (guess who that might be?) and his friend Henry Mayhew who is clearly a hero of Pratchett’s – read the final author’s acknowledgements section and you’ll learn of the impact that Mayhem has had on him, in fact the book is dedicated to Mayhew, because of Mayhew’s own factual accounts of London life in Victorian times, collected in his tome London Labour and the London Poor which sound as fantastic as anything as Sir Tel could dream up, but were actually grimly true. What is highlighted in these asides is the importance of the London sewers to London life. Built by the Romans to drain away rain water, they have been severely abused by the time we reach the Victorian era, becoming the repository for anything and everything to be dumped underground, either accidentally or on purpose. Go down there at your peril, but some do, and one of them is Dodger, who is a tosher, a scavenger of the sewers finding whatever treasure he can underground. He is Dodger by name and Dodger by nature. A diamond geezer, trying his best under the watchful eye of his friend Solomon. A diamond in the rough that Charlie soon sees has some potential and gives him the task of trying to find out who the mysterious young lady is, and why she is in so much danger. A task that will draw Dodger some unwanted attention from shadowy powers, not that he seems too concerned, for he is starting to fall for the lady and starting to question his way of life below the streets of London.
Pratchett books can sometimes be critic-proof, and this one probably is. You will get no argument from me as it is one of the best books he has come up with in years, riffing off Dickens, and his hero, Mayhew, and having Dodger encounter some well known, real-life people of that era, and in one instance has an encounter with someone that has to be read to be believed.
For all you Pratchett completists out there, if you buy the edition on sale at Tesco you get a couple of postcards by Paul Kidby, based on the illustration that adorns the back cover, but I am guessing if you are a Pratchett fan, you have already bought your copy when the book was released. Still. you could give that one away for someone’s Christmas and treat yourself to another edition.
Dodger has been cited by a number of the SF2 Concatenation team as one of the best science fiction books of 2012.
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