A storm. Rain-lashed city streets. A flash of lightning. A scruffy lad sees a girl leap desperately from a horse-drawn carriage in a vain attempt to escape her captors. Can the lad stand by and let her be caught again? Of course not, because he's...Dodger.Terry Pratchett is best known for his Discworld series. I'm a huge sci-fi fan, have been since I was knee-high to an Ewok, and yet, for all my nerding around as a kid, I never read any Discworld books. Heard about them but never read them. The reason why was a mystery to me until I read Pratchett as an adult.
Seventeen-year-old Dodger may be a street urchin, but he gleans a living from London's sewers, and he knows a jewel when he sees one. He's not about to let anything happen to the unknown girl--not even if her fate impacts some of the most powerful people in England.
From Dodger's encounter with the mad barber Sweeney Todd to his meetings with the great writer Charles Dickens and the calculating politician Benjamin Disraeli, history and fantasy intertwine in a breathtaking account of adventure and mystery.
I think he doesn't come up on a sci-fi loving kid's targeting computer because his books, which have to be shelved somewhere, aren't really sci-fi. Or fantasy. Or supernatural or comedy or mystery or any of the other fifteen thousand genres Pratchett can put into a novel and make work. For a kid whose identity was tied up in droids and spaceships, genre-bending was a tough sell.
While Pratchett's content is completely accessible to a kid, trying to get a kid to read the stuff might require a fair amount of explaining that would wrongly imply the material is going to be too challenging.
"Read this, kid, it's like a mashup of The Hobbit and the movie Flight. With lawyers."
No, it won't do to give kids a Pratchett book and a long explanation. His books should be introduced the same way we're introduced to bacon. Bacon gets handed to you with a wink and a smile and the firm knowledge you'll come back for more. Actually, Pratchett's books should be handed out with bacon and just save us all some time. Better yet, print the books on bacon and you've saved the publishing industry. You're welcome, RandomPenguin.
So when I heard Sir Terry (not being glib, dude's a friggin' knight!) had a new YA out, I could not have been more excited. Pratchett isn't new to YA. In fact, his Discworld series includes a collection of YA novels set in that world and they are just as genre-defying, witty and fun as any of his work.
Would Dodger match up?
Oh, yes. Yes it did.
Set in Victorian London, Dodger is everything I hoped it would be. It starts like a punch and goes like an out of control carriage. Our hero is seventeen-year-old Dodger, so named because he's always dodging stuff. Knives, coppers, villains, the Crown, etc., etc. He's a lovable rogue, clearly smarter than his low station (he works as a "tosher," unmucking coins and rings and other items of value that find their way into the sewers).
Dodger is by far one of the most interesting characters I've read in a long time. He can read but only people, not words, and he has a sort of Forrest Gump relationship with the world. Famous people seem to cross his path in the most believable way. One minute he's befriending Charles Dickens and the next he's disarming Sweeney Todd. Everyone knows or has a connection to Dodger. He's like the Victorian Kevin Bacon.
Dodger is, at heart, a mystery. On page one, Dodger saves a young woman from a terrible beating and is hired by Charles Dickens to uncover the culprits. Dodger spans the city in a new suit, playing Philip Marlowe and falling for the girl.
One of the joys of this book is peeling back the layers as you go. As I mentioned before, Pratchett's books can cross into any number of different genres without so much as an "excuse me, was that your foot?" Dodger delves into some interesting social commentary as we watch the main character interact with his world and see it both as a tosher and, later, as a burgeoning gentleman. The way he's treated depending on what he's wearing and who is vouching for him is a fascinating study in social class.
The book is also very "meta" in this regard. It offers social commentary using Dickens as a character who offers social commentary (based on a real person who offered social commentary). And Dodger is based on a character in a book by the real Dickens, who is portrayed here as picking up the main features of that character from Dodger. Totally Matrix, right? I half expected to find Neo staring back at me when I turned the page.
But make no mistake, for all the big-boy things this book does well, Dodger is also funny. Funny as hell. Just as a fer instance, despite a keen street sense, Dodger is a bit green in the book-learning department. When asked about his friend of "Jewish persuasion," Dodger points out that the man needed little persuading as he was, if he recalls correctly, simply born that way.
Dodger is my favorite book of the year. Yes, I know it's only February but it's gonna be hard to beat, I think.
As with all the books I review, Dodger is a great read no matter your age or gender. But if you have a reluctant reader, someone looking for adventure, someone who likes the funny, is into Victorian porn or is a Dickens fan, definitely get him or her a copy.
And don't do too much 'splainin'. Just hand over the book and a plate of bacon and step away.
Copil rates all books on their Bacon Factor. On a scale from one to ten, one being "gristle-y" and ten being "bacon," Dodger gets a ten. See more Bacon ratings on Twitter (@copil).