Unseen Academicals book review

Comic fantasy writer Terry Pratchett tackles the subject of football in his 37th Discworld novel, Unseen Academicals…

Football. It’s a funny old game – especially when seen through the eyes of arguably Britain’s greatest contemporary comic author, Terry Pratchett. Unseen Academicals sees the celebrated creator of Discworld cast his penetrating gaze on the UK’s biggest preoccupation outside of procreation.

Now, I’m not a football fan by any means. I just don’t see the point of two teams of outrageously overpaid prima donnas being lauded for kicking something repeatedly. But even so, I couldn’t help but love Pratchett’s gently satirical take on the sport, referred to through that slightly skewered prism of his as “Foot-the-Ball”.

The wizards at Ankh-Morpork’s Unseen University are thrown out of their pipe and slippers comfort zone when it emerges that, unless they promptly form a footy team, they will lose the financial bequest that pays for the greater part of their food bills.

Though they have no wish to partake in a game enjoyed by the common folk and famed for its mindless violence, the prospect of having to forego almost hourly helpings of cheese and pies forces them into action.

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Lord Vetinari, the city’s benevolent tyrant, is all in favour of this, particularly because it will allow him to move the game forward and establish more civilised rules becoming the Century of the Anchovy.

With the help of Ponder Stibbons, UU’s most intelligent and diligent member, Archchancellor Mustrum Ridcully begins to put together a football team composed of faculty members, students, and staff. At least it takes Mustrum’s mind off the former Dean, who has done the unthinkable and accepted  the Archchancellorship of rival university Brazeneck College, in Pseudopolis.

Meanwhile, deep within the bowels of the university a mysterious and troubled character named Mr Nutt, a candle dribbler by profession, is starting to come to people’s attention. Despite his lowly position and Goblin-like appearance, Nutt has a formidable encyclopedic and analytic intelligence and is taken on as the team coach.

He shapes the rag-bag UU side, which includes Rincewind, the Disc’s unluckiest and most cowardly inhabitant, and the orangutan Librarian, while Stibbons introduces a new set of rules (including replacing the referee’s poisoned dagger for a whistle) and a ball that goes “gloing” as opposed to “clunk”.

Nutt is good friends with Trevor Likely, son of legendary footballer Dave Likely, and through him is introduced to homely Night Kitchen cook Glenda Sugerbean and her dumb-yet-stunning assistant Juliet Stollop.

Trev is in a dilemma. He and aspiring dwarf micromail model Juliet are proverbial star-crossed lovers, yet he supports Dimwell Old Pals and she Dolly Sisters FC, a rivalry that can prove fatal.

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Can true romance reveal that deeply entrenched enmity is only kit deep? Can the wizards have a hope in hell of beating a team of street brawling thugs? And can Foot-the-Ball teach society that prejudice isn’t really such a hard Nutt to crack?

Though the plot is as near to a game of two halves as you can get on the written page – the action leading up to the big match and the domestic soap of below stairs – Unseen Academicals is much deeper than that.

It is a delightfully satirical swipe at real life issues such as football violence, racism and self-limitation that uses football as a medium to illuminate how it takes all sorts to make a Discworld. Pratchett is unrivalled in his flights of comic fancy and has a power of description to match, with choice phrases setting the scene vividly in an oddball fashion no other writer could get away with.

Another strength is in its characterisation. The main players are well realised and over the course of the 540 pages the reader comes to really care for them, having seen what makes them tick fully exposed and explored.

Even minor figures such as Dr Hix,Head of the Department of Post Mortem Communications, stay with you afterwards. Hix, who has a duty to be ever-so-slightly evil and possesses a skull ring to prove it, is such a brilliant comedy figure that he deserves to play a bigger part in the series.

The climax of the novel is brilliantly told using a two-tone narrative split between third-person description and journalist William de Worde’s live match report, and its probably the most enthralled I’ll ever get with anything involving a ball and goals.

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To sum up, Unseen Academicals is a shining addition to the Discworld catalogue and a longoverdue spotlight on the members of Unseen University.

It reconfirms the fact that, when it comes to comic literature, Pratchett is at the very top of the premier league.

Unseen Academicals is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.


5 out of 5