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Reading: Unseen Academicals

Unseen Academicals cover

The UK cover above looks much nicer than the US one.

(Click the image for a link to the source)

I’m back from my holiday, and during that first weekend away I was able to sit down and read a book in large chunks, something I frequently put off in favour of other things that feel more demanding of long sessions (games in particular, but also TV, films and the internet). Most of the time I just chip away at a book a chapter or two a day.

The book was Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett, the thirty-seventh book in the main Discworld series (which doesn’t include the several Discworld books aimed at younger audiences and the non-Discworld ones Pratchett sometimes writes in between). The series has run pretty much as long as I’ve been alive and has undergone changes along the way, starting as straight-up parody of fantasy tropes and clichés before moving into satire, all the while maintaining a fair amount of consistency in the world. Like a lot of the later books, Unseen Acamedicals focuses almost entirely on the sprawling city of Ankh-Morpork, which itself has evolved from a typical medieval fantasy city into something more Victorian, the presence of magic and the quirks of the Discworld itself putting a unique spin on the various industries and services that steadily come together during the books.

The book is centred around football (soccer), something which to my knowledge hasn’t been mentioned before (though I’m told it might have come up at one point in Jingo) but which is something Ankh-Morpork has apparently been obsessed with for some time. The wizards of Unseen University discover that they’re obligated to participate in regular games of football or lose a significant chunk of their funding, so they scramble to put a game together. At the same time the city’s ruler, the tyrant Lord Vetinari, decides it’s time to tame the sport (which has essentially become a brawl with a ball involved) and sets about instituting rules that make it a little more structured and civilised, whether the players themselves want that or not.

It’s not a story about the game itself (actual matches appear rarely and even then not in their entirety) so much as what that kind of sport means to a city, unifying the masses around a shared experience. I’m not a sporty person myself so it’s not something that really resonated with me, my experience of sport being that it’s often divisive, with rivalries and hatred perpetuated across generations as people support teams because they live in that city or because a parent supported it. I honestly don’t think it would have been possible for the book to change my opinion there.

The good news is that there’s still plenty to enjoy in the book. A lot of the story focuses on the staff of Unseen University, people who are almost always overlooked: Mr. Nutt the (possible) goblin, who is surprisingly well-spoken and skilled; Glenda, head cook on the university’s night shift, who represents the citizens of Ankh-Morpork, a little trapped in the monotony of their lives and who find football a release from that; Trev Likely, the talented son of a deceased football legend who has vowed never to play football again; and Juliet, a beautiful kitchen assistant who falls in love with Trev only to discover they support rival teams.

Mr. Nutt, Glenda and Trev are all excellent characters, and there are secondary characters like Pepe the dwarf fashion designer who will hopefully pop up again in later novels. There are plenty of returning characters with major roles as well, such as Ponder Stibbons, Mustrum Ridcully and Lord Vetinari, in addition to cameo appearances from characters like Sam Vimes, Angua, The Librarian and Rincewind, although in some cases these appearances are brief or strange enough that they don’t actually feel like those characters. As somebody who first got into Discworld back in the days of the fantasy parodies and who is a little disappointed that those days are over I have to say that Rincewind’s relegation to an unimportant minor role almost felt like teasing, but that’s just me.

Unseen Academicals managed to hold my interest despite focusing on a subject that I’m not a fan of, thanks to the same Pratchett humour that defines the Discworld series, as well as the strong characters, the good story and the way it provides a look at Ankh-Morpork at a level we don’t often see. It’s not anywhere close to being one of the my favourite Discworld novels though, being just a Discworld book that’s not bad rather than something I can say I genuinely loved or that will prove particularly memorable.

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  1. February 13, 2011 at 15:09

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