Series: Oliver & Jack #1
Published by Blue Rain Press on January 1, 2014
Genres: Fiction, Friendship, Gay, Historical, Historical Fiction, LGBT, M/M Romance, Love & Romance, Romance
Source: I Bought It
A young orphan in 19th century Victorian London struggling with the shadow that the workhouse has cast over his life becomes an apprentice, but his desire for respectability is thwarted by his friendship with a street thief from his past.
Five years after Fagin was hanged in Newgate, Oliver Twist, at the age of seventeen, is a young man of good breeding and fine manners, living a quiet life in a corner of London. When Oliver loses his protector and guardian, he is able, with the help of Mr. Brownlow's friends, to find employment in a well-respected haberdashery in Soho.
However, in the midst of these changes, Jack Dawkins, also known as the Artful Dodger, arrives in London, freshly returned from being deported. Oliver's own inability to let go of his past, as well as his renewed and intimate acquaintance with Jack, take him back to the life he thought he'd left behind.
I’ve had this book sitting on my Kindle for years now (I actually bought it in 2017 – yikes!) and meant to buy the rest of the series but for some reason or another didn’t get round to it until about a week ago. Big mistake. Huge. Because this book (and series, now that I’ve bought and read the whole lot in under a week!) is fantastic.
Before I gush some more about this wonderful series, a bit of background is required. This is not strictly a retelling – it’s more of a continuation of the tale of Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. That is, a continuation with LGBT themes – which certainly wouldn’t fly back at the time the original work was published circa 1937-1938 (it was originally published in serial parts).
This allowed for a new fresh perspective – a reimaging of an old classic. I’ll be blunt here – I haven’t actually read the original book. I did try a couple of times as a teenager but it was so bleak and wordy it had trouble catching my interest (I know this is more on me than on the source material because it is well-loved and for a good reason). On the other hand, I have seen several filmed adaptations (I was a big fan of the musical version Oliver! as a child and still love it to this day) so I am reasonably familiar with the story.
I am quite fussy when it comes to historical fiction – it’s not a genre I read all that much of as a whole, and it takes something special to pique my interest. This book was certainly something special.
The story opens with young Oliver Twist, now seventeen years old, who has just lost his beloved benefactor and guardian Mr Brownlow. Struggling to deal with his grief and his now uncertain place in the world, he is mollified when a position as clerk for a local haberdashery is open to him by the strict yet fair Mr McCready.
After living a life of relative luxury for the past five years, Oliver finds working in the shop difficult and tiring, but all the same rewarding to have a place in society and a trade to aspire to (as he dearly wishes one day to open up his own bookshop).
However, Oliver’s new structured world is threatened by the return of his childhood companion Jack Dawkins (the Artful Dodger), newly deported from a penal colony in Australia.
Jack seems determined to reconnect with Oliver, and frequently pops by whenever he pleases. Oliver dreads these interruptions and fears that Jack will put to risk his determination to succeed at his new chosen livelihood, yet he cannot seem to turn Jack in to the authorities as he should.
When something happens that puts Oliver’s future in jeopardy, he finds the only person he can turn to is the one person he has tried (and thus far failed) to stay away from…
I am truly kicking myself that I didn’t get round to reading this series earlier. I really did myself a disservice because this world that Christina E. Pilz has woven, taking inspiration from the original novel but also breathing new life into the material, is so well-drawn with such incredible detail to the time period it actually leaves me breathless.
I mentioned above that the original novel depicted a time so bleak that I really struggled to read it when I attempted it many years ago. This book does not shy away from the arduous themes of the original work, and is pretty much just as bleak at times, but there is just something that grabs you by the lapels and refuses to let you go, a sense of urgency, that I found lacking in my attempts to read the original, likely due to the formal way of writing. The author does an amazing job of continuing the narrative of Dickens’ Oliver Twist, but making it very much her own story.
Oliver Twist himself is given new life, he is not just the innocent, cherubic young lad from Dickens’ tale, he is a fully realised character in his own right. He was less a character in the original and more of a catalyst for the events going on around him, a cipher as it were. Here he is given more depth, warts and all.
He is no longer the perfect paragon of virtue but a young man with many flaws. He is righteous sometimes to the point of folly. He is single-mindedly determined and focused, but has put on blinders to other people’s suffering (due in some small part to being elevated from his own poverty as a youngster). He is easily riled and has a vicious temper – which is more often than not his own undoing.
Jack Dawkins on the other hand, is pure sunshine. Despite his nefarious past and pickpocketing ways (which he has absolutely no intention of ever giving up) he is a character who is lively and even-tempered, with a certain amount of joie de vivre. Every chapter he appeared in was elevated by his presence, he was a delightful character and it was easy to see why Oliver couldn’t help but be drawn to him despite his so-called better judgement.
Although Jack is unapologetic about his ties to the criminal underworld of London, and is a harsh reminder to Oliver about what his future could entail, he is the only person that Oliver can turn to when his luck changes, and the only one who will help him, no questions asked and wanting nothing in return (except perhaps to be close to his ‘Nolly’).
Oliver struggles hard with his past and despairs about being sucked back into that lifestyle, yet he is drawn to Jack like a moth to a flame. Their long-standing friendship soon deepens into something more, something unexpected, which could potentially bring even more danger to their lives. Yet, this bond between them, both old and new, is something to be cherished and something neither boy is willing to let go.
to sum up
This book really did a number on me. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Oliver and Jack since I finished it and I rattled very quickly through the rest of the series (expect reviews for books two to six in due course!) I grew to love these two characters so much (especially Jack – he is a treasure) and their journey together throughout this book (and the rest of the series) was both filled with joy and so much angst!
Seriously, this isn’t an easy story to read (there are some terrible things that happen to these lads – be warned) but it is so very worthwhile. I cannot say enough good things so I’m going to leave it here before I write a novel-length review myself!