Terry Pratchett has written several non-Discworld stories for young adults, such as the excellent stand-alone story Nation, Dodger is another non-Discworld outing which does however feel quite like some of his Discworld books (The Truth for instance). The streets of Victorian London do seem similar to those of Anhk Morpork at times.
Rather than being a pick-pocket, Dodger is a boy who makes a living grubbing around in the sewers of Victorian London for coins and other valuable stuff that the people above on the streets may have dropped. That’s not to say that Dodger hasn’t in the past done a few burglaries and picked a pocket or two, but he has been persuaded away from these criminal activities by Solomon Cohen a wise old Jewish man that he lives with along with his smelly old dog Onan. That’s where the similarities to Dickens’s Oliver Twist stop, although of course Pratchett couldn’t resist the temptation to put Charles Dickens in as character and sprinkle some ‘in-jokes’ along the way for those adult readers familiar with Dickens’s work.
Other Victorian luminaries that feature are Benjamin Disraeli, Henry Mayhew, Angela Burdett-Coutts, Robert Peel and Queen Victoria herself. Also the fictional character of Sweeney Todd plays an important role in sealing Dodger’s reputation as something of a hero in the newspapers. The character of Sweeney Todd is rendered magnificently by Pratchett taking the two-dimensional Demon Barber of Fleet Street and turning his story into one of three-dimensional post-traumatic pathos. This alone is to be applauded; however the book keeps giving, and is easily one of the best non-Discworld books Pratchett has produced. The book is as usual full of the kind of dry wit that fans have come to expect, is excellently researched (or blagged) and provides amusing insights into everyday life in Victorian London.
The only note of caution I would issue is that for younger readers there are some quite macabre scenes (I am thinking particularly of Dodger taking a dead body from a morgue and transporting it across London), some challenging subject matter (death, rape, and criminality) and a soupçon of swearing. However, letting your kids stay up and watch television beyond the watershed or play any non 12A rated console game will soon harden them to tales such as Dodger, which on the whole is simply a fun fantasy piece not to be taken too seriously.
A Blink of the Screen is a rather different kettle of fish being a collection of short (at times very short) fiction by Pratchett that has appeared in magazines, on Discworld merchandise or fantasy anthologies. I found a lot of the earlier work included in the collection somewhat mediocre (apart from The High Meggas), but it was interesting to see how the young writer found his legs and his own style as time progressed. The High Meggas is an exception as it is an excellently contrived tale reminiscent of Philip K Dick and led on to the interesting (if a little sloppily executed) novel with Stephen Baxter called The Long Earth (which I have reviewed in a previous post).
Pratchett comes into his own in the reasonably safe confines of his own created world and so it is the 120 or so pages of Discworld material that really shines out. Pratchett himself confesses that he struggles with shorter fiction and I would suggest that this collection is for Pratchett fans only, whereas Dodger is a book that anyone could enjoy without ever reading any of his other work (but of course you really should).