In 2011, NPR's Morning Edition interviewed fantasy author Terry Pratchett about becoming a legalized-suicide advocate in his native England, after his diagnosis with early-onset Alzheimer's. Asked about the increasingly grim turns in his best-selling Discworld novels (recent books have dealt with war, systemic slavery, demonic possession, and what it means to be human), Pratchett suggested that it wasn't illness but age that has made him cynical and prone to see the world more critically.
But that cynicism isn't apparent in his new young-adult novel Dodger, one of only a handful of Pratchett books that departs from his 39-volume Discworld series. His protagonists normally display bitter, hard-won humanism, and battle their own skepticism along with outside forces. But Dodger is sunnier and more upbeat. As Pratchett explores life in Victorian London, bringing in famous figures and lingering over unusual professions, it's hard to shake the notion that he's enjoying his excursion into historical drama too much to be all that hard on his characters.
The eponymous Dodger is a tough-minded, goodhearted 17-year-old orphan who knows every con and survival angle in London, including the importance of minding his own business. But he can't help interfering when he sees two men viciously beating a young woman. Leaving the victim in the care of passersby — Punch magazine co-founder Henry Mayhew and writer Charles Dickens, it happens — he aims his considerable resourcefulness at ferreting out her attackers, who turn out to have far-reaching political connections.
Solving the mystery of her background and the problem of her ongoing safety brings him into contact with characters both real and fictional — everyone from Benjamin Disraeli to Sweeney Todd. Few of them have significant story impact, though; Pratchett includes them playfully, or out of interest in their historical significance. He has a similar fascination with the era's slang and the historical oddities of Mayhew's 1851 social survey London Labour and the London Poor. For instance, he devotes a fair bit of the book to exploring the entrepreneurial creativity and secret religion of toshers, who made their living searching for lost valuables in London's sewers.
Stylistically, Dodger doesn't differ significantly from Pratchett's books marketed to older readers. He still engages in his usual wry, straight-faced wordplay: Dodger contemplates being a "successful urchin" by "studying how to urch." At another point, a suspicious doctor gives him "a cursory glance which had quite a lot of curse in it." But these linguistic gags are rare in a book that's more focused on the violent, miserablist aspects of Victorian England, which Pratchett doesn't soften or elide for young-adult readers.
Still, Dodger reads as swooningly optimistic compared to much of Pratchett's recent writing. Dodger's consummate skill at everything he tries makes him a wish-fulfillment fantasy of competent coolness. It's no wonder everyone who meets him speculates about his bright future. Even Dickens expresses his "great expectations," then thoughtfully writes that phrase down for later consideration. And as Dodger's cocky cleverness increasingly impresses Dickens, it's clear where he got the inspiration for a certain Oliver Twist character.
But it's Dodger's moral heroism that stands out. Growing up in an oppressive environment of easy betrayal and cutthroat competition for scant resources, he nonetheless remains generous, loyal and brave, with an idealistic sense of justice — maybe a bit too much of a paper saint at times. But Dodger finds ways to put all that goodness to use. By turning this talented urchin into one young woman's "knight in soaking armor" (to use Dickens' description), Pratchett provides a focus for Dodger's better qualities.
Underneath that encroaching cynicism, Pratchett has always had a not-so-secret romantic heart. Dodger just represents a rare case of him wearing it on his sleeve.