I’ve been trying to get my thoughts appropriately in order on this one for a while, but every draft that I have been writing so far has ended up damning it with faint praise, when what I guess I’m really trying to do is praise it with faint damns. So I will go ahead and do that.
Let me start off by saying that this is a quality effort from Pratchett, which means that it’s going to be a reasonable read in any event. If I’d written this book I’d consider it a job well done. But considering his unfathomably large and deep catalog, he’s got a lot of competition from himself and I’d put this one in the “below average” category for him. I ended up reading it on an airplane which is probably about the best place for it, since it was about airplane ride length and it also blocked me from having any other reading options handy without retrieving my carry-on from the overhead bin. I realize that “better than fooling around with luggage on a packed flight” is not a ringing endorsement.
I’m not entirely sure on this point, but I think this book is probably meant for younger readers and it’s also not a Discworld book. However, it takes place in Victorian-era London, which is probably about as close to Ankh-Morpork as you’re going to get in something close to the real world. It’s not a sanitized version of London, there is a bunch of grinding poverty and casual daily horror that is usually elided from the setting. As to when it takes place . . . well, the book is a little cagey on that and explicitly notes that there’s a form of time compression going on to ensure the cast of characters (some real, some fictional) can all co-exist. Pratchett’s notes say that it’s somewhere between 1837 and 1853, with the caveat that Sir Robert Peel (playing the part of Sam Vimes this evening) didn’t have the job he’s holding in the novel at any point during those real years. None of that bothered me especially. In fact, the world building is absolutely first rate. I’d love to read Pratchett’s underground history of Victorian London, instead of the story that we end up with.
Anyway, we’re introduced to main character Dodger (his nom de guerre; his actual name is of course extremely embarrassing) as he goes about his business of toshing, which means he ambles around in the sewer system seeing if there’s anything worth picking up down there. Money’s good, objects are also okay as sometimes they’re worth having and sometimes they can be ransomed. It’s stated that Dodger is not above “finding” things in people’s pockets from time to time either. This is a storm sewer system, incidentally, not a septic system, although some people have begun using it as such, much to Dodger’s disgust. Dodger’s an old, experienced and crafty hand at this, having survived it a lot longer than most people do. He’s seventeen.
On this particular night he runs across two thugs beating up a young woman and leaps to her defense. The woman, who is going by the name Simplicity, turns out to have a few problems of her own. Namely she was persuaded to marry a prince from some German state, only it turns out that he didn’t consult his father the king beforehand and is expected to enter into an arranged marriage with someone else. Suddenly all the witnesses to the marriage have had unfortunate accidents and she decided that maybe returning to her ancestral homeland was a good move. The principality wants her back and is assuring the British government that no harm will come to her if she returns. Everyone acknowledges that “no harm” can still encompass a rather large and unfortunate range of treatment.
So, there’s the setup. If you are thinking, hey, streetwise urban petty criminal by the name of Dodger, that sounds a little familiar, I’d say you get a cookie but the Artful Dodger is wearing his trademark top hat right on the cover illustration so you’ll have to provide your own cookie. Yes, Charles Dickens is a character in this book and yes, Dodger manages to drop titles for many of Dickens’ novels throughout the story, usually being reminded to stop writing stuff down in case the reader missed it.
That maybe was a little harsh, but there are a couple problems I’ve got with this book which put it in the below average section.
The first one is that he’s got this really great setup and setting and then basically doesn’t do a whole lot with it. A lot of Pratchett’s heroes tend to be awesome, but in this case Dodger basically doesn’t even break a sweat. He starts off down there in the sewer and by the end of the month he’s got a Saville Row bespoke suit and is being received at Buckingham Palace. I never once got the sense that he was in physical danger, that his plans would fail, or that he was ever out of his depth in any way. There were several good opportunities for this but none was taken. Dodger can out-think, out-talk, and out-fight everyone right out of the gate. The Discworld novel this reminds me of most heavily is Soul Music, where the joke is supposed to be that the guy is named “Bud of the Holly”, but that doesn’t actually have much to do with anything. I’m saying that it’s cool to have Dickens in this book, but he doesn’t actually do anything that couldn’t have been done by someone who wasn’t Dickens, and he doesn’t really seem all that much like the real Dickens anyway.
In the same vein, the story lacks a proper heavy. The unseen prince and his father are the villains but they’re over on the Continent. Their agents first hire the aforementioned two thugs through a fixer. Later the agents discuss whether the fixer is any good and whether they should hire “The Outlander” instead. This sounds spooky, right? A good Pratchett psycho villain like Mr. Teatime or Carcer? Then Dodger is told to watch out – someone’s hired the Outlander. And then the Outlander is both introduced and dispatched in one scene. This is a shame, not least of which because what little we do find out about the Outlander means that this could have been a truly classic villain, and because the actual confrontation is the only time that Dodger ever really is at any of a disadvantage even a little bit (although salvation is not that far away).
One of the other problems I’ve got is perhaps specific to me, since I’m an Oliver Twist fan from way back and one played the Artful Dodger in yet another children’s theater production. If Dickens really did base Oliver Twist on his fictional-real-life meeting with Dodger then both Dodger and Solomon Cohen should have sued his drawers off for libel. I didn’t mention Cohen yet but he’s Dodger’s landlord/mentor and is as far from Fagin as humanly possible. In fact he’s not only as cool as Dodger but far more worldly. I sort of wish the book had been about him, but he’s been everywhere and seen everything and frankly would have probably had even less trouble overcoming adversity than Dodger did. So maybe that’s not a good idea. And also Cohen tries to discourage Dodger from pickpocketing. But anyway, although Oliver Twist is really enjoyable, that was Oliver’s show and there wasn’t really too much suggestion that the Artful Dodger or Fagin were admirable or aspirational in there. Like I said, maybe this is just me, but I was really bothered that Dodger was supposed to be the Artful Dodger when he really wasn’t, in any way.
And my other major complaint is in the nature of personal relationships. In Discworld novels, the romantic leads tend toward the fourth-date marriage (Carrot and Angua excepted). I’ve always thought that this was sort of a throwback to the Victorian-esque setting of the novels. So here when it seems like Dodger and Simplicity may be getting together that’s not entirely unreasonable . . . except that this is supposedly the real world. Simplicity’s problems started with her horrible choice of romantic partners and she’s just coming off a physically abusive relationship, and Dodger is a seventeen year old street kid who frequents prostitutes on the bad side of town. I can foresee some strife in this potential relationship. Just saying. I wasn’t rooting for them to get together, although I won’t say whether or not they do.
So, there’s my list of faint damns. I don’t need those four hours back, exactly, and it’s not actively bad. Still, not his best, sad to say.