UNSEEN ACADEMICALS

by Terry Pratchett

HarperCollins

978-0-06-116170-4

400pp/$25.99/October 2009

Unseen Academicals
Cover by Scott McKowan

Reviewed by Steven H Silver


It is a little surprising that it has taken Terry Pratchett so many novels before he chose to tackle the world of sports and its attendant fan base in a Discworld novel, given how easily both sports and the esteem in which society holds it can be held up for lampooning.  In Unseen Academicals, Pratchett finally satirizes football and the team loyalties which arise amongst its fans.  However, as with many of Pratchett's Discworld novels, sports only serve to give Pratchett a situation in which to place his characters to study humanity, even when his characters aren't human.

Set in the hallowed halls of Unseen University, with some action spilling out onto the streets of Ankh-Morpork, the wizards find themselves required to play the game of football, despite their singular disinterest in anything that involves more activity than sitting around gorging themselves on the latest production from the University kitchens.  Fortunately for them, the backstairs of the University is home to Trevor Lively, whose father is the only football player in history known to have scored two goals, and Trevor's friend, the mysterious Mr. Nutt, of indeterminate species (but more determinate than Pratchett's Nobby Nobbs).

Rather than focusing on the wizards, Pratchett continues his recent trend of devoting books to previously unknown characters, with his more iconic characters, from Rincewind to Ridcully, taking more of a supporting role.  In this case, Pratchett focuses on Trevor, coming to terms with his own history and, after meeting the lovely Juliet, trying to figure out what he could be.  Nutt knows what he is supposed to be, but his circumstances preclude him from fitting the stereotype, a typical situation in Pratchett's books.  Just as major a character is Glenda, the night kitchen girl, whose decency and sense of morality mean that she is perfectly fine inserting herself wherever necessary, whether it is in the middle of a football scrum or in Mr. Nutt's personal life. Finally, Pratchett introduces a subplot concerning the gorgeous kitchen girl, Juliet, who is discovered by Madame Sharn and Pepe and used to help them promote their new line of Dwarvish micromail.  Although these characters continue throughout the novel, the plot is almost, but not quite, allowed to atrophy, perhaps setting up Juliet's character for a future novel that will explore her success as a low fashion model and a satirizing of haute couture.

While no Discworld novel is without its dangers, Pratchett ups the ante with the introduction of Trevor's friend associate Andy.  Although human, as the archetypal football hooligan, Andy has all the stereotypical features that the characters in the book associate with the Nutt, once they determine Nutt's race.  Nutt, of course, does not demonstrate any of those features to the infinite confusion of the citizens of Ankh-Morpork.  Andy's presence, however, instills an anarchic threat into the proceedings of the novel which have been lacking from Ankh-Morpork since the days when Pratchett's Patrician was merely a title rather than the more fully realized character of Lord Vetinari.

Pratchet does a wonderful job in making Unseen Academicals accessible, even to those who are not football fans.  As always, his characters, especially when they act against expectations, come to life.  Although the events in the novel tends to work out in the end, Pratchett has a great deal of fun, which is passed on to the reader, playing the the narrative expectations before providing a satisfactory ending.


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