Most of the Discworld novels skewer familiar cultural institutions, whether journalism (“The Truth”), religion (“Small Gods”) or Hollywood (“Moving Pictures”). Like many other satirists, Pratchett is also a not-so-secret moralist, critical of all ideologies and accepting of our usual human failings in this strange mixed affair we call life. As the Omnian religion reminds us: “We are here, and it is now.”
While virtually anything by Pratchett can be enjoyed by an intelligent teenager, he has also written middle-reader children’s books, some set in the Discworld, such as “The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents” (winner of the 2001 Carnegie Medal), and a series of young-adult adventures centered on a teenage witch named Tiffany Aching, who is frequently assisted by a Lilliputian cohort known as the Wee Free Men. “Nation” — Pratchett’s most ambitious YA novel, a meditation on the individual and society set against a backdrop that resembles that of “Lord of the Flies” — takes place on what is meant to be a just slightly alternate 19th-century Earth.
Such is the case, too, for “Dodger,” which borrows the Artful Dodger from “Oliver Twist” and transforms him into an unlikely hero, a lad who prospers in surprising ways, if not quite in those that would win the approval of Horatio Alger Jr.
Dodger, who is about 17 when the book begins, lives entirely by his wits in a rough-and-tumble London, chockablock with thieves, prostitutes, beggars and outcasts. He earns his bed and board by roaming the sewers, unearthing valuables that have been swept down the city’s drains. As a “tosher” — the name for such sewer rats — he is the best there is, knowing the underground drainage system and such subterranean locations as the Maelstrom, the Queen’s Bedroom, the Golden Maze and Breathe Easy as well as hackney cab drivers know the above-ground streets and intersections.
“Dodger” opens dramatically, on a rain-swept night:
“A fancy two-horse coach wallowed its way along the street, some piece of metal stuck near an axle causing it to be heralded by a scream. And indeed there was a scream, a human scream this time, as the coach door was flung open and a figure tumbled out into the gushing gutter. . . . Two other figures sprang from the coach, cursing in language that was as colorful as the night was dark and even dirtier. In the downpour, fitfully lit by the lightning, the first figure tried to escape but tripped, fell, and was leaped upon, with a cry that was hardly to be heard in all the racket, but which was almost supernaturally counterpointed by the grinding of iron, as a drain cover nearby was pushed open to reveal a struggling and skinny young man who moved with the speed of a snake.