This book’s protagonist is based loosely on the Artful Dodger character from Charles Dickens’ novel “Oliver Twist.” Pratchett’s Dodger is a brave scamp with a gift for plunging into the middle of precarious situations. One such situation occurs when he rescues a young woman who’s being battered one night on a London side street. The girl, known only as Simplicity, we later find out was attempting to escape an arranged marriage to an awful chap who’s a member of a foreign royal family. Her husband has no intention of letting her go peaceably, and has power, resources, and goons at his disposal. The story is an attempt to resolve this issue in a way that is satisfactory to the girl, for whom Dodger grows fond.
Dodger is a tosher, which is one who scavenges in London’s sewer system in search of wedding rings that were washed down drains or coins that rolled into storm drains. The fact that he’s mostly collecting lost items may make him more palatable / likable than the pick-pocketing Dodger of Dickens’ work. That said, this version of Dodger isn’t above absconding with valuables that seem to be “lying around”–even if they happen to be “lying” on the owner’s desk in the owner’s house. However, it’s clear from the outset that Dodger has a working moral compass. His liberties with earthly possessions don’t interfere with his understanding of what is right and wrong when it comes to treating others as you would like to be treated. This makes for a character who seems more mischievous than felonious.
Like many modern works that are based on Victorian era fiction, this book not only borrows fictitious characters but also individuals from the real world. Pratchett weaves Charles Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli, Henry Mayhew, and Angela Burdett-Coutts into his novel. (If the latter two names don’t ring bells, the former among them was an advocate for the poor and the latter was the wealthiest woman in England at the time, a woman who opened schools for impoverished children.) Except for Dickens [and to some extent Burdett-Coutts], these characters don’t play major roles, but more help to make the reader feel they reside in the world of the novel. [However, the book is dedicated to Mayhew.] There are also other fictional characters, most notably Sweeney Todd—the butcherous barber of penny dreadful fame.
This novel displays generous helpings of Pratchett’s humor and skill in setting the reader into a world that would otherwise feel foreign. One needn’t have read “Oliver Twist” [or any other works] to make sense of the book. It stands alone. [It may be easier if you haven’t read “Oliver Twist,” because you won’t have an ingrown sense of the character.]
I’d highly recommend this book for readers who like light-hearted historical fiction. It’s funny and engaging.