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Dodger: Pratchett's Adventures in Victorian London
Lately, Terry Pratchett seems to be trying to tackle genres he hasn't before, for example his fascinating alternate universe collaboration with Stephen Baxter "The Long Earth" and this book, his first example of pure historical fiction (it could be argued that the earlier book "Nation" was historical fiction, although it was more a fantasy set in an alternate universe in my opinion), although Pratchett himself referred to the book as a work of "historical fantasy."
The book is set in the early Victorian Era London, where its protagonist the titular Dodger makes a living as a tosher--a kid who scavenges for dropped coins and other valuables in London's extensive sewers. As the book opens, he witnesses two men attempt to recapture a fleeing young woman, and being an honorable sort of street rat he manages to fight them off. The young woman, who adopts the name of "Simplicity," is fleeing from circumstances she is at first reluctant to explain, but which seems to involve agents of a foreign power that want to either capture or kill her, and even with allies that include many famous people in Victorian society, as well as his knowledgeable landlord Solomon Cohen, it'll be a struggle for Dodger to figure out how to keep Simplicity safe.
I really liked this book. Dodger himself is a fun character, a charming rogue who is simultaneously underestimated by many of the people around him who see an amoral street rat while also being discomfited as he begins to develop a reputation as a hero in London. Pratchett is able to make a character that is cynical while also being legitimately heroic. Solomon is also great, as a sort of anti-Fagin: a scrupulously honest Jewish watchmaker who serves as a beacon of common sense to ground some of Dodger's more fanciful plans in reality. Pratchett also uses plenty of real-life Victorians as characters in his novel: of particular note are Charles Dickens, the philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts, a young Benjamin Disraeli, and Sir Robert Peel. Charles Dickens, as might be imagined, is particularly heavily featured in the first half of the story (he appears less frequently in the second half, where he seems to have been mostly replaced by Solomon), and I liked his ability to see right through Dodger's prevarications. Finally, I loved the character of Simplicity, who is able to persevere despite the hardships she endured before the story starts, and is able to seem both dignified and ladylike, while having a spine of steel.
One character who got short shrift was the barber Sweeney Todd, who sort of shows up, is defeated by Dodger, and then is mentioned off and on from then on. This is mostly regrettable because Pratchett gives us a wholly unique and quite fascinating interpretation of Todd, and I would have liked to have been able to see more of him. Another character I would have loved to have seen more of is the Outlander, a mysterious assassin sent by the forces trying to recapture Simplicity, who we are told about frequently throughout the story, but whose actual appearance is a gigantic anticlimax. I was expecting more from a character we're constantly informed is so tricky and bloodthirsty.
However, overall the book is good. Pratchett has obviously done his research on Victorian London (unsurprising, as the city of Ankh Morpork in his Discworld series can been seen as basically being a fantasy version of Victorian London), and I appreciated his afterword giving notes on elements of the setting he was unable to expand on, particularly the confusing British coin system which Dodger, as a guy whose job is basically to collect other people's spare cash, frequently runs into. Pratchett's writing is incredibly immersive, and he makes Victorian London seem real again, a feat for which he should be commended.
All in all, you should read this book, particularly if you are a big fan of Pratchett or Victorian settings. Pratchett has given us an awesome new character and a page-turning plot, and the book overall is quite fun. Check it out if you run into it,