Review: Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett
When you’re following as many series of books as I am (which is currently a three-digit number), you’re bound to get a little behind on some of them—especially when their author is as prolific as Terry Pratchett. This book, for example, is the 37th novel of Discworld out of (at this writing) a total of 39. That’s not too bad. I’ll probably get caught up soon… just in time for another book to come out! If I were thinking about just starting to read this series (say, with The Colour of Magic), I might be a bit intimidated. But reading the next new Discworld book will always be a high priority for anyone who has ever read one, or 10, or 36 of them. Once you get started, you won’t feel so much intimidated as thrilled to anticipate so many weird, funny, and exciting books. Their entertainment value is hard to beat, especially if you’re reasonably bright reader with an off-center sense of humor. And even more encouragingly, they maintain a consistent high level of quality, unlike many other long-running series. Always exploring new territory, even within well-loved areas you have visited before, the Discworld novels offer to be the cornerstone of a huge library of comic fantasy, especially appealing to young wizard fans who have grown tired of waiting for their letter of admission to Hogwarts.
And behold, this book focuses on a school for wizards. By now Unseen University will be well known to followers of this series. It is the alma mater of the nebbishy wizard Rincewind, whose adventures were heavily featured in the earlier books of this series. Its Librarian is an orangutan who can give the word “Ook” a wide spectrum of meanings. Its Archchancellor is a rugged, bullmoose type named Mustrum Ridcully. It has a chair of post-mortem communications, a branch of magic otherwise known as “the dark arts.” It has a super-computer powered by an ant farm. And it has a complex body of traditions that, somehow or other, keep the sun in the sky and U.U.’s walls covered with ivy. One such tradition, which has lain neglected almost to the point of disaster, is that the wizards must occasionally field a football team (that’s soccer, for U.S. readers). If they fail to do so every twenty years or so, the endowment fund that puts food on the wizards’ table could go away. Which, given the wizards’ fondness for pickles and cheese, is a pretty persuasive argument in favor of putting a side together.
There are, however, arguments against it. Lord Vetinari, the tyrant of Ankh-Morpork, frowns on the game. The way it is played in the street is a danger to life and limb, with the ball being made out of wood wrapped in rags, the concession stands touting frankly toxic pies, and the brutal “shove” of well-armed spectators often proving to be more action-packed than the main event. But the times, they are a-changin’. Or, to borrow a favorite phrase of Pratchettese that crops up many times in this book: “The leopard may change his shorts.”
For one thing, archaeologists have discovered a naughtily illustrated urn from deep in the muck of Morporkian antiquity, revealing the original rules when the football was a religious ritual honoring the goddess Pedestria. Then there’s the matter of the ball, designed by the University’s all-knowing, multi-dimensional computer, which makes a lovely “gloing” sound when it bounces. Perhaps the biggest revolution in the game is the tactical genius furnished by one of the drudges in the university’s candle-dribbling vats—a suspected goblin named Nutt.
Nutt’s history is actually even more strange and ominous than you would guess from the above description. There is something exceedingly original about the young fellow. He devours books (not literally, but you know). He talks posh. He understands heady ideas by sheer instinct. And he has a thing for a plump, plain, motherly young woman who cooks pies in the university’s night kitchen. Glenda takes Nutt under her wing, along with a kitchen maid named Juliet who is destined to become Ankh-Morpork’s first supermodel, and the dreamy Trevor Likely, whose destiny is decidedly football-shaped. Together with a fashionista dwarf, an overworked wizard who carries the weight of the university on his shoulders (because he is the only known wizard with any common sense), and a cross-section of the city’s melting-pot of trolls, vampires, werewolves, and zombies, these four young below-stairs dwellers ride the crest of the latest wave in the Discworld’s ongoing industrial revolution.
Feats of body, mind, and magic meld with high fashion, low society, and mass hysteria to add yet another dimension of real-worldliness to the whimsical, woolly world of Terry Pratchett. Reinventing the football won’t be easy. There may even be blood. The future welfare of the entire city may be at stake. And both Nutt and Trev—to say nothing of their lady friends—will have to face tough truths within themselves. You, meanwhile, will face truths about the football (and other areas of modern life) that you may never have thought about, in a way that will make you laugh often and sigh occasionally while you grow, perhaps, a little wiser. Not a bad deal for Book 37 of at least 39!