Book: The Unseen Academicals

The Unseen Academicals book coverI have surprised myself today: in doing this blog for over 5 years, I have never written of my love of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. This is surprising considering I’ve been buying them now for nearly 20 years; I remember even misguidedly putting it on an early CV (in the mistaken belief that being specific about my love of reading in the ‘Hobbies’ sections was more individual than ‘I like books’). Part of this is my initial fear regarding ‘reviewing’ proper books, and part of it is because I feel completely inadequate as a writer after reading the intelligent, funny and beautiful prose Terry Pratchett produces.

The Unseen Academicals is the 37th Discworld novel, which is amazing in itself, but even more now that Pratchett is suffering from a rare version of Alzheimer’s, a truly cruel turn of events for such a fine brain. Instead of the series suffering from going on so long, it only gets better. I think this is because Discworld offers Pratchett the chance to write about everything: it started out playing with fantasy, but it has covered topics such as the film and music industries, the invention of paper money and the postal system, Christmas and religion. Now it is the turn of football.

The plot starts with the staff of Unseen University discovering that they will lose the vast majority of its money unless they field a team playing ‘foot-the-ball’; the game is currently a thuggish and brutal game that belongs to the lower class of Ankh-Morpork (city of cities), which is more about the tribal aspect – the game itself is an aside. Lord Vetinari, Patrician and beneficial tyrant of Ankh-Morpork, decides that the game needs to be civilised (to stop property damage, if nothing else) and ‘asks’ the University to control this new direction. Into this mix are thrown Mr Nutt, an erudite and well-spoken goblin from Uberwald with a secret, who works as a candle dribbler in the University; Trev Likely, Nutt’s friend and work colleague, who is a gifted footballer who doesn’t play after promising his mum he wouldn’t after his father, a famous footballer, died playing the game; Glenda Sugarbean, the homely woman who runs the Night Kitchen at the University; and Juliet, a pretty but simple girl who works in the Night Kitchen but who might be the first supermodel in Discworld.

The story allows for Pratchett to write about the idea of football – what it means as a concept, its identity and place in the world, its possession by the people, the magic behind it (both in the playing itself and the connection with the fans) and the Platonic ideal of what football is, something that works so well in Discworld. There are lots of lovely references to football throughout (even using ‘They think it’s all over’ as punchlines near the end of the book), and I think that this book is the most British of the Discworld series in that respect, as it is intricately linked to the nation’s identity.

It goes without saying that I loved the book – I haven’t read a bad Pratchett book, and I simply adore his way with words, the way he finds truth in everything and is able to explain these truths in such an exquisite and beautiful manner. His turn of phrase constantly delights, his jokes are actually funny, his characters feel so real (and the number of characters who still flit in and out of the books, from the likes of Sam Vimes, Cut Me Own Throat Dibbler, Rincewind, Archchancellor Ridcully and of course Death, are another joy of the series) – it’s a bittersweet experience to finish a book because you want to know how it ends but you don’t want it to stop. The only thing about this book is that I don’t think that Pratchett is an actual fan of football, and I don’t think he ever actually played the game himself, based on his writing about it – he understands it all, but on a different level. It’s hardly a criticism, just an observation. He is Sir Terry Pratchett, after all – I’m not worthy to even type these pathetic collection of words about his wonderful, wonderful writing.

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