Fresh from a year at a boys’ reformatory school, Todd Sweeney comes home to learn his widowed mother is being menaced by Ashford Squeers, the evil, sadistic Fleet High guidance counselor who lied and helped send Todd away. Not only that, Todd learns that Squeers is having his best friend and “little brother” Tobias sent away to a “conversion camp” after having done the same to Tobias’s one true love, Anthony, months before. Desperate to be a good man and protector like his father, Todd goes about it in a decidedly final manner when a meeting between Squeers and Todd brings their mutual hatred and antipathy to a gory head.
At a loss, Todd calls the smartest, most level-headed person he knows, Nellie Lovett. Between studying and taking care of her parents, big-hearted Nellie spends her free time being the good little liberal—selling empanadas for scholarships to champion the less fortunate. When called upon by Todd to help him out of his sticky situation, Nellie not only quickly helps Todd process his Squeers problem, but helps him comfortably don the mantle of paddle-wielding knight. Soon, the two discover their passion for social justice and bloody vengeance knows no bounds, and they eventually embark on a madcap scheme to free Tobias and Anthony from the clutches of “soul-saving” familial love as suspicions from the law fall upon them.
Todd Sweeney: The Fiend of Fleet High uses satire to examine how society attempts to reduce the complicated layers of humanity, the human existence, and everything we create along with it, such as society, politics, etc., into easily identifiable and digestible ideals. With a narrative that starts stripped of complexity so that everything can be pigeonholed into set concepts (for example, erections exclaim that men are manly defenders), Todd Sweeney is a very dramatic caricature that pokes fun at/dissects concepts such as social conformity, the concepts of love, ideas of masculinity/manhood, and the idealism and righteous indignation of youth. It looks at political/social hypocrisy and how that hypocrisy and ugliness manifests in people and places convinced of their good works, while also sneaking in some heartfelt moments of compassion.
Overall, the story is an amusing re-telling of the Sweeney Todd story that, although taking place in modern times, has the same story of power, corruption, and the obedient, unintentionally complicit sheep general populace at its core.
“They told you to be good and to obey. So you were good and you did obey, but still they mowed you down. They lied, others went along, and the liars got promoted and won awards, while the silent, exhausted thousands just slept through it all.”
At the end of Todd’s journey as self-appointed defender, he learns that life isn’t as black and white as it seems and that “even the biggest, strongest man can’t fix everything”—a point emphasized by the fact that the main problem solvers/thinkers are women. The evolution of Todd’s viewpoint is encapsulated by the decreasing overtly evilness of his foes and the increasing difficulty involved in saving his loved ones. For example, Pratt’s description of Squeers is particularly well done and seems intended to make the reader gag with disgust. Beyond having the man roll around in a pig pen and walk around in a muck-covered suit twirling his mustache, Squeers couldn’t come across as any more vile, repulsive, and deserving of vigilante justice. Yet as the dragons Todd slays become less black and white/caricatures of social media posts, Todd questions his method of protection and the totality of choices/circumstances that make a person “good” or “bad.”
As someone who enjoys satire and appreciates how delicate a balancing act it can be, there are some things that did not work for me. The story is written in such a way that it mimics a stage play, which in my opinion is good for some elements of the story, but less so for others. For example, the chapters begin with scene-synopsis/stage directions that fit with the glib/dramatic air of the narrative, but the dialogue is also written in this manner, and with it being as overly-dramatic/lampooning as it is at times, it was distracting to me and sometimes worked against the story. This is especially true in scenes that successfully dramatize a situation to highlight a point Pratt seems to be making, but whose impact is lessened and sometimes muddled by the dialogue. Additionally, I felt that the pacing is also negatively affected by this, particularly in the latter part of the story where stakes and ridiculousness are higher, and in which the last 20% rushes in new characters, then shifts the POV and storyline in the last 5% of the tale to the “rescuees” and their new guardian.
Though for me Todd Sweeney: The Fiend of Fleet High lost a bit of steam at the end and had a bumpy dismount, it’s still an enjoyable read. So, if you are looking for a fun tongue-in-cheek look at humanity or simply enjoy stories featuring long pig empanadas, this one may be for you.