Phil Parker (tigertoy) wrote,
Phil Parker

Book review: Unseen Academicals

Today's book review is Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett.

This is a Discworld novel, but the major characters are new to this book.  The setting and some supporting characters carry over, and knowing them makes it a little easier to understand.  It's a fairly complete story.

Reading this book and writing this review fill me with sadness, because unless the rumors as I've heard them are wrong, this is the last Discworld book:  What I've heard is that Sir Pterry has early onset Alzheimer's and he is no longer able to write.  However, he was still himself to write this book.  It had a slightly more serious tone than usual, but it was still chock full of bizarre comparisons, clever word usage, funny jokes, and of course, goofy footnotes.  In keeping with his recent works, it's also an insightful look into some aspects of modern society disguised as satire.  In this book, he takes on sports, and on the way by throws some punches at university politics, racial stereotypes, the dynamics of power in society, fashion, and the importance of tradition.  It is funny, with many laugh out loud moments, it is engaging, and it's also full of wisdom, nearly all of which I actually think is wise.

9 out of 10.


Nutt is a mild-mannered goblin who works in the candle vats -- somewhere in the basements of Unseen University where they make all the candles that light the place.  He is obsessed with following the instruction given to him by Her Ladyship to prove that he has worth.  He has absorbed all the knowledge in a good sized library and can apparently do anything described in it.  Trev, his nominal boss, is a lazy, shiftless football hooligan, but Nutt has made him a friend by doing most of his work.  Nearby in the basement, we also have Glenda, who is in charge of the Night Kitchen, and Juliet, her beautiful but air-headed assistant.  Juliet convinces Glenda that they should attend a free dwarf fashion show, and gets talked into modeling the latest in micro-mail.  Her single appearance generates a huge stir in the papers.  At about the same time, Trev convinces Nutt to join him at a football game.  This "football" is more of a regularly scheduled street riot, where the players are more worried about doing violence to each other than actually moving the ball to the goal, and the crowd itself -- the Shove -- changes the shape of the field, even moving the goal posts, during the game.  The Shove has chanced to bring our four heroes together, and Nutt has gotten them close to the action by using a pudding stand as a sort of snowplow (he is that strong) when the ball -- actually a heavy chunk of wood wrapped in cloth -- comes flying straight at Juliet.  Trev pulls her to safety and Nutt grabs the ball and nonchalantly throws it at the distant goal, striking and breaking the post.  Trev and Juliet support rival teams, so their having any involvement is extremely dangerous.  Trev and Nutt flee, but they run into some other hooligans.  Nutt is knifed in the chest and apparently killed.  Trev manages to get the Watch to buy -- just barely -- his story that he's just rescuing his friend.  Nutt causes some minor consternation when he gets up and walks off the slab.  Ponder Stibbons, the only wizard who is relatively sane, in his role as Keeper of the Traditions, discovers that an important tradition has not been observed recently, and if it is not revived very quickly, a major bequest supporting the university will be revoked.  Faced with losing their food budget, the faculty decide that they must, in fact, play a game of football.  At the same time, Vetinari decides that football needs to be reformed, to be a manageable part of society instead of a scheduled riot.  The wizards invite the football captains to a banquet where they get very drunk and sign off on the new rules.  Nutt becomes the coach for the UU team and designs a good ball.  Nutt rediscovers the horrible secret that he has kept repressed, that he is not a goblin, but an orc.  Orcs are a manufactured race of super-soldiers, dimly remembered as really scary monsters thought to be safely extinct.  Nutt is terrified that, having remembered what he is, he's going to start tearing his friends' heads off, so he runs, but his friends fetch him back.  As the big game gets under way, we learn that while the captains of the city's teams signed up for the new rules, the ringleaders of the hooligans didn't, and they intend to see that the city wins, and break Vetinari's power.  The wizards score the first two goals so easily that Ridcully, acting as captain, gives one of them to the other team to make the game fairer.  Then the bad guys start playing their way.  They deliberately injure the wizard's star striker and poison the Librarian, the wizard's goalie.  Trev, who has adamantly refused to play, because he promised his mother, finally agrees to go in, only to discover that he can't handle the official ball with the magic that he can kick the can.  However, one of the odd rules that was carried over from the old game basically says that if the official game ball gets switched for something else, and the players play with it, the new object is now the game ball.  Glenda arranges to have the real ball kicked out of play and she swaps in Trev's can.  Trev dominates the whole field, drubbing the other team with the "ball", making it official, and then scores the winning goal, saving the day.  Trev and Juliet get together.  Nutt takes up the crusade to find the other surviving orcs and teach them to be civilized.  Glenda agrees to give up her secure position as a cook to go with him.
Tags: book review, fantasy, terry pratchett
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