Saturday, January 9, 2010
Unseen Academicals is Terry Pratchett’s most recent book, and the 37th in the extremely successful Discworld series.
You used to be able to rely on Sir Terry (he was knighted in 2009 for services to literature) for at least 2 books a year, but age and illness (he was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimers disease in 2007) have affected his once prolific output. Unseen Academicals is the first Discworld book since 2007’s Making Money.
The Discworld books can be hit and miss, Unseen Academicals is, to my way of thinking, a hit. The loose story concerns the efforts of the Wizards of Ankh Morpork’s Unseen University to play Discworld’s version of football against a team comprised of more accomplished footballers from Ankh Morpork’s poorer and less genteel neighbourhoods.
I saw one blogger say that he hadn’t gotten around to reading this, and wasn’t particularly interested, because it was about football and he didn’t much like football. That attitude can be put to rest by a quote from Pratchett himself on the back of the book: The thing about football - the important thing about football - is that it is not just about football. Being an avid follower of Australian Rules and a somewhat fanatical supporter of my team I can agree with that statement. Only 10% of any widely followed sport is about the game itself.
This particular installment deals with class, food, cosmetics, fashion, friendship, religion and occasionally football. That’s the thing about the Discworld books, they tend to hold modern society up to a looking glass and score goals with their criticism. I’ve often thought the key to their success is that you have fantasy tropes living in their typical medieval society, but they think like 21st century people and try to solve medieval situations with 21st century logic.
The series is episodic, the reader does not have to have read any of the other 36 books to enjoy this one, although it will improve the experience if there is some knowledge of the recurring characters. Pratchett has developed a large supporting cast over the past 26 years.
Unseen Academicals reunites readers with the characters of: Mustrum Ridcully (Arch Chancellor of UU), his much put upon assistant Ponder Stibbons, the Librarian (who happens to be my personal favourite character), the inept wizard Rincewind (he started the whole series back in 1983 with The Colour of Magic) and Ankh Morpork’s unnerving and menacing ruler, former assassin Havelock Vetinari. There are also cameos from other fan favourites: Death, the Luggage, Sam Vimes and Cut Me Own Throat Dibbler. The bulk of the story follows the new characters of: mysterious young candle dribbler Mr Nutt, his best friend, the streetwise Trev Likely, the very sensible and responsible Glenda Sugarbean, who runs the Unseen University’s Night Kitchen (wizards keep unusual hours and are most likely to want a pie or a sugary treat along with a good cup of tea in the middle of the night), Glenda’s friend and object of Trev’s affections, the beautiful, but somewhat vacuous; Juliet.
As a story it hangs together remarkably well, while simply meandering along collecting the author’s thoughts on a myriad of subjects and articulated in only the way he can. I have to confess to being less than impressed by Making Money, and that was over 2 years ago. Unseen Academicals was a welcome return to form from the recently knighted author.
Welcome back Terry, you have been missed!