Terry Pratchett, best known for his long-running science fiction series Discworld
, takes on a new type of fantasy with his 2012 novel, Dodger.
Pratchett dubs this piece “historical fantasy,” not historical fiction because he takes liberties with real life, historical figures to integrate them into the fantastical superhero world of the central protagonist, Dodger.
Jack Dodger is just another young tosher in Victorian-era London. A tosher is someone who scours the sewers, searching for valuables and tossed away goods to turn a profit on. Dodger is a self-coined “street urchin,” homeless and yet very content with what he does. He believes his work is in honor of the Lady of the Sewers. His granddad always told him that with hard work, this Lady will grant him a single “tosheroon” one day – a gift with such incredible value that it is enough to satisfy someone for life. With this in mind, Dodger is content despite his life on the streets. Everyone that he meets loves him, and he loves them in return. His carefree disposition contrasts greatly with that of his soon-to-be love interest, who, ironically
, though she comes from royalty, is unhappy with her privileged life.
On a stormy night, Dodger is returning the street from the sewer when he sees a commotion: a couple of men are attacking a helpless young woman in a carriage. Dodger chases the men off while two other onlookers tend to the woman, who is in grave need of a doctor.
A doctor assesses the young woman, informing her that she was pregnant and has lost the baby. The father of the child is a mystery, as is the girl herself – she hasn’t told them her name. Mayhew’s wife calls her “Simplicity” and the name sticks.
Cultivating his “historical fantasy” genre, Pratchett sneaks in historical nods here and there throughout the novel. The two helpful men are Henry Mayhew, an up-and-coming social reformer seeking justice for the working class, and Charles “Charlie” Dickens, a budding writer and journalist. Pratchett modeled Dodger on Dickens’s Artful Dodger character.
Charlie and Mayhew are impressed with how quickly Dodger came to Simplicity’s rescue. At Charlie’s urging, Dodger digs a little deeper to find out who Simplicity is and what she’s running from. He discovers that she escaped from an abusive and controlling husband, the prince of one of the German states. Disapproving of the marriage, the prince’s family wants to eliminate every trace that she ever existed. After the two witnesses to the wedding were killed, Simplicity had no choice but to run – she would undoubtedly be next.
Simplicity and Dodger begin to grow close as she stays at Mayhew’s house, hiding away in fear. As they fall in love, Dodger is propelled into the limelight after a series of crime-stopping events. One day on his way to meet Charlie, he happens upon a robbery at the Morning Chronicle.
Once again, the reader’s beloved underdog saves the day.
While getting his hair trimmed to impress his new love interest, Dodger’s barber, Sweeney Todd, goes a little crazy. Dodger recognizes this man’s mind is being overcome, as he picks up his shears in an attempt to kill his customers in a murderous rage. Dodger disarms him, talking him down from what he concludes was an episode of post-war PTSD. Not only is Dodger a hero, but he’s a genuinely empathetic one, too. This anecdote pays tribute to the not-yet-imagined classic, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
Because of his superhero stints, Dodger becomes a household name overnight. He’s even drawn up as a comic in Punch
. However, with Dodger’s newfound popularity, Simplicity’s safety is compromised; the group has to find somewhere else for her to stay. There’s a bigger threat now: an assassin, whom they’ve dubbed the Outlander, is out to get them both.
Charlie suggests that Simplicity move into his rich friend Angela Burdett-Coutts’s house, as she is known for using her money to help those in need, especially women. While Simplicity tries to hide from the spotlight, Dodger uses it to devise a plan. With his new status, he can arrange meetings with top-tier politicians that might be able to save Simplicity. He meets with Benjamin Disraeli, a higher-up in Parliament, to arrange her protection. The government does not want to get involved, though, as knowingly harboring a fugitive from the German states might cause turmoil to their country-to-country politics.
Robert Peel, the head of police, steps in to help Dodger. He doesn’t expose what he knows about Simplicity, and he doesn’t intervene when Dodger knowingly breaks laws to protect her once and for all.
Dodger’s plan is simple: for Simplicity to start a new life, her old one has to end. He decides the only option is for her to fake her own death. In an illicit act, Dodger steals the body of a doppelgänger. The girl, who looks just like Simplicity, has just committed suicide. Peel and his police department overlook this crime for Dodger and Simplicity’s sake. Dodger gets Charlie and Benjamin involved; the two plan to lie, claiming they saw Simplicity fight for her life.
However, as Dodger’s plan begins to unfold, the Outlander appears. No one has been able to identify or catch the guy because he looks different whenever he appears. In a surprising twist, the assassin is actually a woman – the same woman that’s been present with the “assassin” each and every time. Here, Pratchett uses his satirical style to make a subtle jab at the traditional aspects of gender roles in Victorian-era London.
Simplicity helps take down the Outlander. Emerging from the bushes in which she is hiding, she helps Dodger to overcome and defeat the Outlander. With the assassin out of the picture, Dodger fakes Simplicity’s death so they can lead a stress-free life together. Feeling reborn after her “death,” Simplicity chooses to rename herself “Serendipity.”
The couple hides away for a little bit, but this time it is their choice. When they return to London, Dodger is offered a position as a spy for the government, since everyone has been so impressed with his work. The novel closes with Dodger’s realization that Serendipity is the “tosheroon” he has been looking for his whole life.