Terry Pratchett hit on a winning formula for the Discworld novels a long time ago. He takes an aspect of modern living and writes a story about how it comes to the discworld - usually in or around Ankh-Morpork - and in doing so takes a satirical and often very funny swipe at the institution around it, not always perfectly successfully it has to be said, but more often than. He's covered everything from newspapers to rock music, the post office to the police, even the mint has has it's turn under the glare of the Pratchett spotlight, and in Unseen Academicals it's the turn of sport, specifically foot-the-ball, and I'm glad to say it's up there with the best of them.
Football has come to Ankh-Morpork, the beating, crushing, pushing and shoving kind of football with little or no order and not much to recommend it. But the city is dividing itself up into factions along the lines of team colours, violence is business-as-usual to some of them but that doesn't stop the fans from going and it's getting out of control. Now however, the wizards of Unseen University must play a match - without using magic - in order to retain a sizeable chunk of funding, the cheeseboard, depends on it!
The efforts of the wizards draw in a likely lad, Trevor Likely in fact, who's a demon at kicking around a tin can, but he doesn't want to play, he promised his mum he wouldn't, and besides he's smitten with Juliet, a nice-but-dim young woman who might just be the Disc's first supermodel, that is if it's alright with her friend Gloria, who makes jolly fine pies and always makes an extra one for Mr Nutt, who no-one seems to know anything about, including Mr Nutt, which worries him the most. As the day of the match approaches the lives of these four will be entangled and changed forever. Because the thing about footbal - the important thing about football - is that it's not just about football.
There's no doubt that Pratchett's books can make you laugh out loud in places, but what sets the really good ones apart is how intelligent and witty they are, the kind of writing that makes you grin like you're sharing a secret with an old friend, and Unseen Academicals is one of those books. The story is complex with a fairly large cast of characters but never becomes unwieldy, it builds up and pays off running gags beautifully and though the character arcs will keep you guessing till the end, when they pay off - almost simultaneously - they are truly satisfying. Despite the ever-presents in the cast, Lord Vetinari and Arch Chancellor Ridcully among them, Pratchett never forgets that they need to grow and learn with each book and because he treats the new characters as well as the old stagers they are all fully rounded and realised and you care about them from the first page.
Another amazing thing for me was how he absolutely gets what football is about - for the fans and the players - and I might just eat one of his hats if he turns out to be a lifelong fan 'cos he just doesn't strike me as one. But then that's the beauty of his books, they fool you again and again. Just when you think you know what's coming he'll surprise you with something out-of left-field and it's those delightful moments that keep the fans coming.
If there is a niggle, and it's a minor one, it's that a couple of times, a scene would fall flat and in others there were niggling grammatical errors. The news that this book was dictated rather than written gives us a possible reason why and reminds us that the output of this brilliant mind will likely wane as the years go on, but on balance there's nothing there to throw you out of the story or ruin the fun of the book. Unseen Academicals is Pratchett at his best, and long may it continue.
Unseen Academicals is published by Doubleday and is available from Play.com, Blackwell and all good book stores.
Posted 16 Nov 2009 by Robert Grant