Chris's Reviews > Unseen Academicals

Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett
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What do you get when you mix football, magic, academic rivalry, an orangutan, the world of high (sorry) low fashion, a thumbing of nose (if not outright rasberrying) of Harry Potter, commentary on religion, and a designer named Pepe?

Unseen Academicals.

Most readers consider the last few Discworld novels to be good, though not great. In Unseen Academicals, Pratchett is back to his top form. Perhaps, a break from Discworld to write the wonderful and thought provoking Nation was what he needed. Regardless, this book is far better than Making Money or Going Postal. Several well loved Discworld characters make cameos, and there are many small touches that a long time reader of the series will love.

I must say, first, however, that I give a huge round of applause to HarperCollins, the publishers. Too often, publishers Americanized British novels, and it was nice to see football called football, and not as most of us Americans call it, soccer.

Unseen Academicals is a story about football, love, understanding, tolerance, worth, and pies, among many other things.
In many ways, the book is in part a love poem to sports, football, in particular, and to the fans of those sports. While Philadelphia fans do not have the reputation of European hooligans, ahem, fans, we do have a rather unique reputation in the states. In fact, Philly fans once threw snowballs at Santa Claus at a football (American) game, and the current Pennsylvania governor was one of the people throwing them. Pratchett’s The Shove, therefore, feels like home. Yet, there is something about sports that brings a city together. For instance, the thrill of seeing a team make the World Series, or even win it. There is this knowledge that the whole city shares. I can still remember going to see a production of Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers. I exited the subway to the sound of church bells ringing, not because it was Sunday, but because the Eagles had made to the Superbowl. After the play, the lead led the audience in an impromptu Eagles chant. Or, last year, after the Phillies had won the World Series when the bar up the street irrupted into celebration. Despite the fact that you had to wake up early the next day for work, despite the fact that the party lasted until well after two in the morning, for once you didn’t care because the PHILLES HAD WON THE WORLD SERIES! And nothing at that moment was more important. If the bar had been subdued that would’ve been wrong, a sin. Sports can bring people together, and Pratchett does a brilliant and touching job of showing this. There is the shove, there is Mr. Nutt’s feeling that, as Trev points out, is something that isn’t talked about very often.

Pratchett also does a far better job at reporting on the concluding match than Rowling does at Quidditch in the Harry Potter series. The football match makes up the end sequence of the novel, is the climax, and is told in real time interspersed with comments from a newspaper. It is a thrilling rendition of an event. The reader feels as if she is right on the pitch. Pratchett also makes good use of the actual history of football, and captures a time of transition, where a once outlawed sport is becoming legal. The conflict of tradition versus change is caught very well. I also wonder how much of Mr. Nutt’s coaching style is based on a real English football coach. Perhaps there is a connection to the new movie The Damm United, the story of Leeds United Coach Brian Clough. I don’t know, but I do know there is a beautifully funny discussion about offside, and that several players seem like real league players.

Pratchett introduces more new characters in this novel. Several characters, however, seem to be similar to others. Glenda, for instance, has a strong resemblance to the witch Agnes. Trev Likely seems to be a toned down version of Moist Von Lipwig. Juliet reminds one of Christine, though “Jewels” is far more likable. Mr. Nutt is a distillation of several characters, including Death. Despite the similarities, the characters stand out on their own. They are like others characters but transcend being just types. This is not a surprise; Pratchett is after all a humanist.

More established characters have supporting roles or make cameos. The UU is present in strong force with Ridcully and Stibbons at the forefront. There is an interesting development with the Dean that leads to a nice play with academic rivalry at the college level. Mrs. Whitlow makes a cameo as does Rincewind (whose mother gets a mention). The Watch is in the background, though Angua and Vimes make cameos. In fact, instead of the Fuzz; the watch is called The Sam. Gotta love it. Of course, both the Librarian and Death show up.

One of the things that is good about this novel is Pratchett’s use of Vetinari. Here the reader we see additional sides of Vetinari, his love for pies and the fact that he can laugh. Forget Arnold. If the Constitution were to be changed, I would want to be able to vote for Vetinari as president.

The Discworld series got its start as a send up of popular fantasy, and Pratchett returns to that here. There are a few references to Harry Potter, including trading cards, Dr. Hix, and wizardly schools. One wonders if Pratchett got tired of being asked if UU was inspired by Hogwarts. Can’t blame him if it did.

Unlike Rowling, Pratchett’s sense of humor is far more, well, funny. There are several one liners that will lead to chortling if not outright laughter. Take for instance, “Glenda realized that right now she would not have minded if there had been hanky panky or even spanky”. Sometimes the humor extends to exchanges, like discussion about sexual congress and oral sex.

Because this Pratchett, however, some of the zingers contain truths. There is Ponder and Glenda’s exchange about newspapers, “ ‘I seriously think that it’s their job to calm people down by first explaining why they should be overexcited and very worried’ ‘Oh, yes, I know they do that,’ said Glenda, ‘How would people get worried if they weren’t told how to be?’”. Considering the reporting on swine flu, among other things, it is hard to argue with that criticism. Pratchett also address the issue of community to accept different people and of the position of the “hated” or “maligned” minority with the character of Mr. Nutt. Several of the most touching and humanely true scenes involved Mr. Nutt. The book is like Small Gods, a plea to understanding and acceptance. It is also better than Small God.

There is one truly heavy, pause and think about scene in the book. This scene concerns Lord Vetinari and religion. When dealing with religion, Pratchett lacks the obvious atheism of Pullman. I’m not sure what Pratchett believes, if anything. But Vetinari’s view on higher power are powerful, thought provoking, heavy, and beautiful written. I wonder if it is Pratchett’s comment on his illness. Regardless, you can’t turn the page for a few moments after reading it.

All in all, Unseen Academicals is a really good book. Go read it now!
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Felicity Excellent review - just a point though - in England the Police are referred to as "The Bill" - which is where "The Sam" comes from.


message 2: by Chris (last edited Oct 12, 2009 05:36AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Chris Thanks. So who calls them the Fuzz? Wasn't Hot Fuzz an English movie?

Is "the Bill" from Fielding?


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