Review: Dodger, by Terry Pratchett

Published on ReadKiddoRead.com, April 2013.

Dodger CoverDodger is a 17-year-old street urchin in Victorian London, a “tosher” who makes his living by scrounging in the mire and muck of the sewers below the city and pawning any lost and discarded treasures for a day’s wages. His work brings him into contact with many in the London underworld, and he does well enough to keep his head down and stay out of trouble.

But on one stormy evening, Dodger emerges from the sewers to witness a young woman leaping from a carriage into the rain, pursued by two men. Without thought, Dodger steps in to help, fighting off the men and whisking the young woman away to safety.

Dodger’s noble deed brings him into the company of a young journalist and writer, a Mister Charles “Charlie” Dickens, who hires him to learn more about the woman and the people who are chasing her. Herein lies the intersection of history, fiction, and fantasy, as Dodger must uncover the details of a murder plot while navigating all levels of British society with charm and no small amount of scrap. The quest is further complicated by the fact that the very same people chasing the young woman now have Dodger in their sights.

Dodger follows a few classic story tropes to create a compelling tale: he rises from his lowly station to be regarded as a young man of high repute; he grapples with the change occurring in his daily life and the people who knew him as just a street urchin; he fights and fights again in defense of the mysterious young woman; and he falls in love.

But what really sets the tale apart is the masterful evocation of a historic time period. Prachett brilliantly depicts such historic and legendary figures as Charles Dickens, Henry Mayhew, Sir John Tenniel, Miss Angela Burdett-Coutts, and Sweeney Todd, to name a few, while fully acknowledging the tweaking of dates, times, and places in the author’s note. Pratchett infuses these characters with a cheeky wit and diction that leaps off the page. Each crosses paths with Dodger in a myriad of surprising ways, and, in the case of Sweeney Todd, involves a near miss with the stroke of a razor.

To relay a sense of the tone, quoted below is an excerpt from the novel:

“[Dodger] had realized that if you were an urchin, then it might help to treat it as a vocation and get really good at it; if you wanted to be a successful urchin you needed to study how to urch. It was as simple as that. And if you are going to urch, then you had to be something like an actor… Safety lay in having one talent that you can call your own, and his lay in being Dodger, Dodger to the hilt.”

Dodger was the recipient of a 2013 Michael L. Printz Honor, bestowed upon a selection of the best books for young adults for literary excellence. Pratchett’s work here fits the bill, and the honor will ensure that teens will be diving into Dickensian London and finding a fantastic adventure full of action and mystery in Dodger’s story for many years to come.

Learn more about Terry Pratchett online at www.terrypratchettbooks.com

Review: The False Prince, by Jennifer A. Nielsen

The False Prince

Published on ReadKiddoRead.com, January 2013.

Years ago, a rebellious prince named Jaron was sent away in exile from the castle; only his ship was attacked by pirates, and all aboard were presumed dead.  Now the country of Carthya is on the brink of civil war. The royal family has been murdered and political tensions run high as the nobles prepare to select a new ruler.

But rather than throw us into the midst of court intrigue right away, The False Prince begins with an orphan. When we first meet Sage, he is on the run with a stolen roast, a mischievous deed for which he is soon caught. He receives a painful beating, but is rescued by a nobleman named Bevin Conner, who has just purchased Sage from Mrs. Turbledy’s  “Orphanage for Disadvantaged Boys.”

Defiant as ever from his years on the streets, Sage questions Conner’s intentions. What would a nobleman want with an orphan boy?

As Sage soon discovers, Conner is sweeping the countryside, secretly going from orphanage to orphanage, looking for a group of boys with close resemblance to the old Prince Jaron. Because the prince’s body was never found, Conner plans to convince the court of nobles that he has found Prince Jaron, alive and well and ready to reclaim the throne. Only the person taking the throne would not be the real prince, but an imposter, one of the orphans selected by Conner to be a false prince, a pawn and puppet with sworn allegiance to Conner alone.

Four boys – including Sage — compete in this treacherous plot, and each bears a strong resemblance to the missing prince. But this is no one’s game, as each of the boys possesses different strengths and weaknesses that could make or break his bid for the throne. One boy, the sickly Latamer, is murdered outright for expressing a desire to leave; there’s Tobias, the educated one of the bunch who can both read and write; and then Roden, the superior swordsman and athlete. Each must prove within two week’s time that he has what it takes to be Conner’s prince. The stakes are high, as only the boy chosen by Conner will be allowed to live.

A page-turner of the highest order, the novel is perfectly paced with plenty of action and tension, as Sage must constantly watch his back while training to become Conner’s chosen prince. Amongst all this treachery is a struggle for friendship as Sage forms bonds with his fellow contenders. He also develops relationships with the servants of Conner’s house, including a trainer, Mott, and a mute serving girl, Imogen. Even the minor characters in this world are fully drawn and rounded, creating a memorable cast of complex and rich characters.

But as any high stakes game of deceit might suggest, all is not as it seems. Amid layers of deception and manipulation, readers should be ready for surprises and plot twists as the clever Sage draws closer to the goal. Readers who enjoy strong characters, complex plots, and adventure stories should not pass this by.

The False Prince stands well alone with a satisfying conclusion, though it is the first part of Nielsen’s planned Ascendance trilogy. The next book, The Runaway King, is expected in March 2013.

Visit Jennifer Nielsen at http://www.jennielsen.com, or follow her on Twitter, @nielsenwriter.