Despite the tragic early onset of Alzheimers, Unseen Academicals shows that popular fantasy author Terry Pratchett is still in top form. He’s got the “diamond in the rough” schtick down to a T, but the difference is that at the end of each story, those polished diamonds don’t disappear off into obscurity – they sparkle on in subsequent novels, imbuing the Discworld with an extreme richness (pun intended).
The 37th novel in the Discworld series(!), Academicals continues the recurring theme of the modernisation of the capital city of Ankh-Morpork. Recent books have seen A-M gain a postal service, a telecommunications system known as “the clacks”, a shiny new banking system, its own currency, and now, football (soccer) and, er… a high-end fashion industry*.
Pratchett still has the touch, and the book offers unnervingly accurate insight into the human psyche, as the plot bores deeply into the inner workings of players, fans, and of course – because it’s soccer – hooligans. The British humour, Flintstones-style take on the modern world, and the satire of fantasy conventions are all exquisitely funny for sure, but beneath the veneer of slapstick he hits hard at issues such as taking the ambiguity of dwarven genders and putting them into the context of the high-end fashion industry, to explore ideas of sexual identity and individual choice, without speaking of sex whatsoever (although there’s more sexual innuendo than usual for Discworld novel as far as I can recall).
Rather than following the escapades of a single character, several plot threads weave their way in and around of each other:
- The wizards of Unseen University, who need to put together a football team or risk losing the significant financial benefits of a bequest that funds their lackadaisical academic lifestyle
- Trevor Likely, trying to grow out of the shadow of his late father Dave – a legend who scored a record number of goals the historical game of “foot-the-ball”
- Nutt, a genteel so-called goblin who discovers the truth about his enigmatic past
- Glenda Sugarbean, the homely head of the university’s Night Kitchen, and her ditsy, comely friend Juliet (“Jools”) Stollop whose modelling debut (heavily armoured and wearing a dwarf beard) leaves the fashion world abuzz and has them trying to find the mysterious “Jewels”
- The dwarf Madame Sharn, head of the fashion label Shatta, and her flamboyant assistant Pepe, at the launch of their new line of micromail.
- The ins-and-outs of the “Shove” – the collective of football followers, being that when they get together to watch a game, nobody can really see anything and all that happens is a lot of shoving.
… and of course the welcome appearance of recurring characters such as Havelock Vetinari, the seemingly omniscient Patrician of Ankh-Morpork; and brief cameos by Death, and Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler.
What I love most about Pratchett even more than the insights, is his mastery of the written form, and his ability to ignore the conventions of language that we take for granted, as when one of the characters in the book is described as being full of “charisn’tma”. And like most of the other Discworld novels, he pushes the boundaries of typography by using bolds, italics, font-sizes, Death’s dialogue ALWAYS IN CAPS and more, to eke every bit of meaning possible out of the words on the page.
To confuse my sporting metaphors, Unseen Academicals adds another home run to an already impressive scoreboard, and I seriously hope that Pratchett hits a couple more before the end of his innings.
* For this reason, if you’re new to Discworld I don’t recommend starting with this book – check out the reading order in Wikipedia for more details.