Unseen Academicals

This was a great week for books. I was sick with a cold or something for a couple of days so I holed up with some novels I've been trying to get time to read and went to town. As any long time reader of this column no doubt knows I'm a huge Terry Pratchett fan and can't wait for his new works. This year I've read two new ones, Nation, which I commented on fairly recently and loved, loved, loved and Unseen Academicals which I ended up loving just as much, somewhat to my surprise, since a novel about football isn't my usual fare. (I've noticed that if you're a good enough writer you can write about anything and still enthrall your audience. Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch is another book about football that I enjoyed despite my lack of interest or knowledge in football.)

Unseen Academicals takes place in Ankh-Morpork, the largest city-state on the Discworld, where the majority of Terry's books are set. If you think about the line from Star Wars that goes "You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy" you've got the general shape of Ankh-Morpork, where the river is so thick you could walk on it and there is both a Thieves' and an Assassins' Guild. Sure there are posh parts of town but there are also trolls snorting whatever they can their fists on and beggars eating mud and old shoes, which is never a good sign if you ask me.

The game of foot-the-ball has been around for ages, so long that the rules have been lost or mutated over the years. It's played in the streets, which are so crowded with supporters that it's a wonder half the audience isn't crushed each game, with a ball that's basically a brick wrapped in cloth. Fights break out on a regular basis and players have died during a game. This is not a game for the timid, either as a player or a fan. So you can imagine how the wizards at Unseen University greet the news that they're about to lose their largest bequest unless they engage in a game against another team. If they lose the money they'll lose an enormous percentage of their budget and be forced to cut back on their meals and spirits, which is a huge part of the wizards' lives.

Meanwhile the ruler of the city declares the game is no longer banned so long as the old rules are followed and a game is set up between the wizards and the biggest, toughest street players. The winning team gets a gold-ish trophy which will be filled with a large supply of beer. But as interesting as all of this is, it's essentially a backdrop to the trials and tribulations of some new characters that I love. Mr. Nutt and Trev Likely work in the candle vats deep under Unseen University. Trevor is Mr. Nutt's boss and also his friend, who tries to teach him how to get along in society. (Don't use such fancy words is the gist of one such piece of advice.) Trev's father died playing the game and he promised his dear old mum he'd never play the game, which practically guarantees he'll be forced to play before his journey is through, wouldn't you say? Mr. Nutt is almost frighteningly clever and comes from a terrible and mysterious background. These two young gentlemen's fortunes change just as they meet up with two young ladies who work in the night kitchen, Glenda and Juliet. Glenda runs the kitchen, makes fantastic pies and is frequently sterner than she wants to be. Juliet is beautiful but in a bit of a fog most of the time, which hardly anybody minds as she's so lovely they drop a few of their own IQ points every time they look at her.

Terry has written quite a few books over the years, some YA, some middle grade but mostly adult books set on the Discworld. He started out gently poking at and mocking the fantasy genres with characters like Cohen the Barbarian, who is very, very old and quite a ferocious fighter, because if he weren't he'd never have live long enough to be very, very old, and Rincewind, the extremely cowardly wizard. Over time Terry took on the biggest issues our society faces and his books gradually stopped being parody and moved towards the satire side of the humorous world, which meant that sometimes what is underneath the humor is heartbreakingly sad. For instance his novel Thud is about the aftermath of a terrible battle between the trolls and the dwarfs that still echoes through to today and fuels hatred between the two races. The parallels to the tensions in our own world are unmistakable and strong enough that I wasn't able to relax and simply enjoy Thud. Either Unseen Academicals doesn't satirize such serious subjects or I'm too dim to have caught them and I was able to settle down and enjoy the novel one hundred percent. It's classic Terry; warm, witty, surprising and hilarious. I'd recommend it to anyone, even the most dedicated anti-sports reader.

You can listen to an audio excerpt here: http://www.harpercollins.com/features/pratchettbooks/description.aspx?is...

One-Paragraph Review

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