Friday, October 30, 2009

Unseen Academicals

Every new Pratchett book that comes out now is bittersweet. It's always terrific to get a new one and at the same time I have to wonder if it will be the last book before he succumbs to Alzheimer's. Setting that aside Unseen Academicals was a mid-range Discworld book; not one the best but far the painful worst.

This might the most British book that Pratchett has ever written. Considering that he's done multiple Shakespeare parodies that's quite an achievement. This time around the topic up for skewering is football (a.k.a. soccer but they don't try to Americanize the references for the releases on this side of the Atlantic) and the culture that surrounds it in the U.K. which I only know from imported sitcoms on PBS and passing references to it from the BBC. Consequently I suspect a lot of the book went over my head which may be why I found it lacking in the usual wordplay that Pratchett indulges in. The humor this time around seemed to be more situational than funny narrative asides.

For those who have not heard of him (though I suspect that anyone who stumbles onto this post has) Terry Pratchett is the author of the Discworld series, an extremely long series of satirical fantasy novels which started out as straight parody of some of the bigger names in the field at the time and wound up exploring the human condition.

This time around the wizards of the Unseen University have to play a game of football or risk losing a large bequest. Over the years the game has transformed in the rowdy streets of Ankh-Morpork into something that is less like a sport and more like a riot. The patrician of the city seizes the opportunity to bring the game under control and commissions the wizards to establish a league. Complicating this plot are the common man who feel very possessive about their game and don't really care to have someone tell them how to play. On top of that there's the tale of two star-crossed lovers separated by team loyalty, a busy body cook, a dwarvish fashion revolution, and an extremely intelligent goblin who harbors an extremely dark secret.

That goblin is the real focus of the character arc in the book and that might be the biggest flaw. He is given a storyline of self-discovery that Pratchett has used many times before. The notes are changed a bit but the song remains the same for these characters which makes them feel a bit redundant in the scope of the entire series. Oddly though he did add a new minor character to the cast as a paid to be evil within limits wizards who I hope to see again since there isn't anyone else quite like him around.

This is the longest Discworld novel and somehow it never feels like it drags. Pratchett keeps spinning new plot thread after new plot thread and while I felt that they didn't dovetail very well they were not dull. This is a surprisingly dense novel in that regard.

As usual for Discworld I laughed, I didn't cry (no one saw anything so they can't prove it), I enjoyed it. I can't say I'd recommend it as a first Discworld novel for someone who hasn't read any of them since I don't think it ranked among the best (go with Guards! Guards!, Small Gods, or Reaper Man if you haven't). Of course if you love your football then you'll probably appreciate Unseen Academicals even more than I did.