Monday, November 09, 2009

“Unseen Academicals”, by Terry Pratchett (Doubleday)


Football Comes to the Discworld, and something strange is afoot…

I suppose it was inevitable, but football has finally come to the ancient city of Ankh-Morpork. This is not the old fashioned, violent, grubby, pushing-and-shoving football. No, this is a new, faster football. There are proper goals, a new football that beguilingly goes ‘gloing’ when you drop it, and soars through the air, unlike the rock-solid old type which broke feet and heads equally.

Because of an obscure, old bequest made to the Unseen University (Ankh-Morpork’s school of Wizards), the wizards must win a football match, without using any magic. Archchancellor Mustrum Ridcully delegates the organisation and training of UU’s team (much like he delegates everything else) to Ponder Stibbons who holds, by his own reckoning, the majority vote on any University Council meeting he must decide to hold (simply because he fulfils so many positions within the university).

The prospect of the Big Match draws in a myriad of characters from the streets of Ankh-Morpork and also the servants quarters of the University. Trev Likely, a street urchin with a talent for kicking a tin can; Glenda, who makes lots of jolly good pies for the Wizards; Juliet, Glenda’s dim but beautiful young colleague in the Night Kitchen (with an awful, Holly Golightly accent), who might just turn out to be the greatest fashion model there has ever been. And then there is the mysterious, erudite, and eternally eloquent Mr. Nutt. No one knows much of anything about Mr. Nutt, not even himself, worryingly. All he knows is that he must attain worth, and can do pretty much anything. Then Ponder Stibbons asks him to help with the football preparations…

Unseen Academicals, the 37th Discworld novel, is a wonderful return to Unseen University. After a considerable absence, it was nice to finally be among the wizards again. The faculty continue to amuse, parodies as they are of university Dons and Fellows. Even poor Rincewind – the star of the first handful of Discworld novels, as well as others – who, as the new “Professor of Cruel and Unusual Geography” has “no students and no real duties other than to stay out of trouble”. The whole cast of them remains wonderfully inept and food-obsessed. Add to this the fact that the Dean has moved on to head a rival university, and tensions (not to mention Ridcully’s blood-pressure) are high. I was disappointed that they seemed to fade a bit out of the story in the second half, though.

The cast below-decks – Trev, Glenda, Juliet, and Mr. Nutt – provide a different approach to Unseen University, as we are given a glimpse into how things actually work, and what sort of people keep the place running. Each character is different and very well rounded. Nutt, especially, is one of the best additions to the Discworld in a long time (though, Moist Von Lipwig is pretty great, too).

I laughed a lot more while reading Unseen Academicals than I remember with some of the more recent Discworld novels. However, the plot didn’t seem as gripping as some of his previous Discworld outings. There’s a lot going on, for sure, but the story doesn’t move along at the sort of pace we’ve become used to with Pratchett’s writing. This might have something to do with the increased frequency with which we switch between perspectives, and the number of people’s eyes we see through. The characters remain intriguing and interesting – the Patrician and Librarian remaining two of the best characters ever created, by anyone. The dialogue is sharp and amusing throughout (his social commentary, certainly with regards to football fans, remains very keen also), filled with clever allusions and puns that will make you chuckle knowingly.

All in all, not one of the best Discworld novels, but Pratchett remains a superior author even with his ‘off’ days. Unseen Academicals will entertain you throughout – and that’s all we can ask from one of the UK’s greatest living writers.

Highly recommended.

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