Sir Terry's Pratchett's new novel Dodger hadn't been in my house twelve hours before my middle son read it and put it in my book bag, insisting that I read it as soon as possible. He only does this with books that he loves, so I had very high expectations. You might even say great expectations, which was particularly apropos as Dodger is set in a fantasy version of Charles Dickens' Victorian London.

Dodger begins on a dark and stormy night, so stormy that only a fool, the homeless, or someone on a dark and stormy errand would be out of doors. It's practically a miracle when Dodger hears a cry for help over the noise of the storm. When he emerges from the sewers (where he makes his living as a tosher, finding money and other lost objects that wash into the drains) he finds a golden-haired beauty who is being beaten severely by a pair of thugs. Dodger has a quick temper, which translates into quick fists and feet flying, which send the attackers flying down the street, trying to get away from him.

No sooner does Dodger drive them away when two more men show up. These two are not scoundrels. One of them is Charles Dickens and the other is Henry Mayhew, a real life gentleman who diligently documented the lives of London's poverty stricken. These two men bear the injured woman away with them, while Dodger trails along, determined to make sure she is all right.

This chance encounter is a major turning point in Dodger’s life. He is about to embark on a series of adventures that will bring him into contact with exalted political figures, terrifying and mad serial killers, do-gooders and evildoers. He'll meet people who range from the poorest of the poor to one of the richest in London. He'll travel from the sewers to Fleet Street to a palace and everywhere in between. And through it all we will get a detailed snapshot of life for the lower classes at the time.

Dodger is a remarkable book which looks at the dire poverty that existed in London in Dickens' time. London was considered the greatest city in the world but some of its citizens subsisted on whatever they could find by sifting through dust piles. (!) Dodger gets by on what he finds in the sewers while the people who live around him are making their money via prostitution, thievery and other depressing occupations. Terry Pratchett has said that he read a book written by Henry Mayhew called London Labour and the London Poor when he was a teenager and it made a strong impact on him. He knew he wanted to write a story about a street urchin who is swept into an adventure that would bring him into contact with important Victorian figures of the time. Dodger is that book, which was fermenting in Terry's mind for quite some time.

I liked this novel a lot but I couldn't quite fall in love with it. The female characters were a little on the weak side, especially Simplicity, the damsel in distress, who seemed to be developed too quickly. I was also jarred out of the story every time Charley Dickens was mentioned. I don't know why, as I have read plenty of books with real historical figures. Maybe it's because I kept thinking about the poverty that the real Dickens encountered and comparing it to the poverty in the novel, which made it hard to concentrate. Also maybe I was comparing it to some of Terry's great books like Nation. I'm also particularly fond of the Discworld books and am always just a little disappointed to be reading something set elsewhere. (Which is dumb, as new settings bring new and different stories.)

To sum up – there is plenty of adventure, some romance, some skullduggery, some obfuscation, and loads of intriguing characters. I probably would have loved this book if it weren't for some weird personal quirks and my elevated expectations.

You can read an excerpt from the novel here:

Bonus Treat:
This week's bonus treat is a startlingly psychic piece from McSweeney's by John Peck. It's called What Your Favorite Classic NES Video Game Says About You. I freely admit that I have done several of the things listed, like using a giant piece of licorice as a substitute jump rope. (Although not for many years.) I may have eaten a meal where every single participant used a protractor as a utensil. It's entirely possible.