Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Review: Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett

As I sat down and began writing this review, my first reaction was something like ‘wow, academicals is a real word’ (even Microsoft says as much). It seems to be both a variant of academic and a reference to the clothing/uniform of a formal academic setting. The connotation points to a dusty old variation, reeking of formality and elitism. Coupled with the other word in the title, ‘unseen’, the stage is well set from one of the major thematic elements of Unseen Academicals (US, UK, Canada, Indiebound) – just how out of touch the old traditional universities are with the common folk that make up the majority. While the universities see themselves as pinnacle of society about which everything else revolves, most actually view them as out-of-touch elitists that are (thankfully) unseen.

So, what is the bridge between the academicals and the masses? Sports of course. The central plot to Unseen Academicals is the formation of a ‘foot-the-ball’ team – the Ankh-Morpork version of football (or soccer to those of us in the US). The Unseen University must form a team as the city’s Patrician (a rather benevolent dictator) embraces football as he attempts to add a bit of civilization to it.

As with all
Terry Pratchett books, the presentation is humor – a very British humor that ranges from laugh-out-loud to silent chuckle to ‘oooo, he didn’t do that’ to ‘that should have been funnier than it was’ to ‘I completely missed just how clever that was’ to not being all that funny at all. It’s all very light-hearted and far from serious – that is unless you read between the lines.

Not just about football and the University, Unseen Academicals also touches on topics as varied as fanatic fandom, recognizing who you are and becoming that person, puppy love, fashion, and racism. All of this is presented through the view of a few people – the head of the night kitchen at the Unseen University, her beautiful young assistant, Trevor the candle dribbler, and an odd creature of unknown origins named Mr. Nutt. Notable appearances are made by the Archchancellor of Unseen University, Ponder Stibbons, the Patrician, the Librarian and other favorites of Ankh-Morpork.

Now I’m from the USA and as expected, not a big follower of soccer/football. A large part of Unseen Academicals is British-style football fandom and all that surrounds it. As a result, I’m sure a bit was lost in translation, but as a sports fan I found much to be universal in nature and enjoyed it all the same.

Puns abound, wonderful wordplay toying with the medieval, absurd traditions become more so, and dialog verges on the ridiculous – exactly what one expects with a Pratchett novel. Unseen Academicals leans toward the late-Pratchett writing style where the slapstick satire is replaced by the clever that touches our world full of pop-culture and political references. I’m not a Pratchett aficionado, nor have I (yet) read all of the Discworld novels, but I’ll go ahead and say that I wouldn’t place Unseen Academicals among the best of the Discworld books, but it’s certainly nearer the top than the bottom. For me the humor was hit or miss with miss winning out more often, but on reflection I can’t help but think that much of the miss did indeed hit, I just didn’t notice it at the time*.

Unseen Academicals is the latest Discworld book from Sir Terry Pratchett. In spite of the inevitable deterioration that Pratchett suffers at the hands of Alzheimer’s disease, he was able to dictate this book using a combination of assistants and voice recognition software – and he’s still in top form. As with most Discworld novels, to fully appreciate Unseen Academicals, prior knowledge of Discworld helps – but a novice reader could easily enjoy the book without this inside information.

Unseen Academicals takes a bunch of fat wizards set in their scholastic ways and throws them onto a pitch full of rough common folk – hilarity ensues and so much more. Fans of Pratchett will love this one, though the appeal is not just limited to those fans. 7.5/10

Related Posts:
Review of Sourcery

* This is far from the best example of my command (or lack thereof) of prose but seems oddly appropriate for a review of Terry Pratchett’s writing.†
† It also felt comfortably appropriate to utilize footnotes in a review of a Discworld novel.

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