Artful: Being the Heretofore Secret History of that Unique Individual, The Artful Dodger, Hunter of Vampyres (Amongst Other Things), hereafter thankfully abbreviated as ‘Artful’ is the 49th novel from exceptionally prolific novel and comic book writer Peter David and applies a little of the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies treatment to the story of the Artful Dodger from Dickens’ classic tale Oliver Twist. The last thing we needed was the insertion of more vampires into classic literature, but if it was going to happen it could have been done much more deftly than in this novel. Reading like it was trying for serious and fell on the side of goofy and like it was trying for goofy and fell on the side of blech, I suppose certain parts were entertaining enough, but it was held back by a number of flaws which failed to sell the book to me.
Oliver Twist is one of the most well-known stories ever told, about a young orphan who has to survive the mean streets of London before ultimately being rescued by a kindly benefactor.
But it is his friend, the Artful Dodger, who has the far more intriguing tale, filled with more adventure and excitement than anything boring Oliver could possibly get up to. Throw in some vampires and a plot to overthrow the British monarchy, and what you have is the thrilling account that Charles Dickens was too scared to share with the world.
From the brilliant mind of novelist and comic book veteran Peter David, Artful is the dark, funny, and action-packed story of one of the most fascinating characters in literary history.
I think we’ll start by looking at the blurb above, as it highlights a lot of the issues that one finds when reading the actual book. To start with, I’m not entirely sure that the Artful Dodger makes for a much stronger protagonist than Oliver did. Sure, he’s witty and already a skilled pickpocket and is full of sass, but the affable rogue who gives a charming smile as he robs you blind is a thoroughly overdone archetype, especially today. Maybe if Dickens had chosen him as a protagonist it would be a valid point, but at the time, Oliver was indicative of the life experience of many people in London. The promise of a potential better life if you stayed true to yourself was actually a nice thing, especially compared to the otherwise near-universal bleakness that is Dickensian fiction. Next, any piece of advertising that includes the phrase ‘throw in some vampires’ has pretty much lost me entirely these days as well. The idea that Fagin (which anagrams to I, Fang) was apparently actually a vampire even in the original Dickens was cute, if strained. The in-fiction claims that Oliver Twist was written as a biography rather than a piece of fiction set an amusing stage for this ‘revelation’ of the much more interesting story of the Artful Dodger. It was a good way to try and execute on the idea, but the rest of the plot details rather derailed the concept.
The characterisation of Oliver as ‘boring’ is also telling. I lost count of the number of lines of narration lambasting Oliver as being a whiny, boring crybaby. They were almost as common as the lines of the narrator explaining why he didn’t want to give us chapters that we then had. Here’s a hint for writers out there: If your story is being told by a third-person omniscient narrator, anything they apologise for including in the book should either not be in the book, or not be apologised for. If backstory is actually legitimately necessary for an understanding of events, it should be included gladly. If it’s not, then it shouldn’t be there at all. I know it was all done with the tongue-in-cheek tone of holding to the idea that only the Artful Dodger’s story was ‘good,’ but if the book itself is apologising for the content of the book, what message are you sending?
The narrator was also just super annoying. Constant asides to make sure we didn’t miss painfully obvious plot inclusions, breaking away from the narrative for the aforementioned apologised-for backstory, the fact that the Artful Dodger is referred to in both the narration and dialogue with no fewer than five totally different names; all of it grated. Generally one is supposed to show, not tell. But if they can’t show, they should tell. What they shouldn’t do is tell, then show, then tell again just in case you missed it. Artful is only 288 pages long. We really didn’t have the space to hear about the fact that Oliver was boring, and that Dodger was super upset when Nancy died ten times each. We certainly didn’t have the space to hear somebody giving an account of the ‘true life’ of the Artful Dodger taking us aside to snigger at his own intelligence over some previous turn of phrase.
This isn’t intended to read as some sort of blanket condemnation of all uses of previous now public domain literature for any purpose, even silly comedic ones. Some of those books have been quite good, but this one just really felt like it missed almost every beat it was trying to hit. The Artful Dodger is really not, as the publisher’s blurb suggests, ‘one of the most fascinating characters in literary history.’ I’m not sure he’d even appear on a list of the top 100, or even 500 for most people who read a lot. He was just the head kid thief in a book about how criminals will use you and leave you to hang, but maybe you’ll get lucky and things will end well.
I suppose at the end of the day, the story was entertaining. I chuckled a few times, but it was as much at the story as with it. If your love of mixing literature with arbitrary supernatural elements is strong, or you just seriously love the Artful Dodger no matter what he’s doing, Artful is an entertaining couple of hours. If you have any pretension to appreciation for the classics, and found that the only thing Ben H. Winters’ Android Karenina had going for it was the pun in the name, you might want to give this one a dodge. Artful or otherwise.
Dan received an Advanced Review Copy of this book from 47North via Netgalley