REVIEW: Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett
REVIEW SUMMARY: A very scattered, disjointed Discworld novel, which has some bright spots making it worth a look.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Football finally arrives on the Discworld, as well as the Discworld’s first super-model; both of these things provide a back-drop to a classic Romeo and Juliet love story.
PROS: Pratchett never fails to write excellent dialogue and some of the emotional points the book hits are very effective.
CONS: The plot feels all over the place, never really comes together, and then is hastily wrapped-up. Not so streamlined and precise as some previous books.
BOTTOM LINE: Someone who is already a Terry Pratchett fan will find good bits in here, I think. Someone who is not a Terry Pratchett fan will not find this a good place to start.
I was a bit nervous when I finally got a copy of Pratchett’s latest Discworld book, Unseen Academicals . I’m a very big Pratchett fan. I think that books like Going Postal and Monstrous Regiment (just to name a couple) are amazing, flawless books. But I haven’t had so much luck with recent novels.
I thought that Thud! was enjoyable and had some good bits, but also a lot of rough spots, particularly with how the character of Sam Vimes was handled. (I realize it was part of the plot, but it didn’t sit well with me). I thought that Making Money never got off the ground, merely meandered around until it concluded.
On the other hand, I thought his non-Discworld novel, called Nation was top-notch, and one of the best Pratchett things I read, brilliantly handling a lot of the themes he’d been touching on in all his Discworld novels. I really loved it.
Thus my nervousness: would Unseen Academicals fall nearer to Nation or Making Money?
Making Money, I’m sad to say.
In theory, the plot of Unseen Academicals is pretty easy to describe. This is the novel that brings the phenomenon of football (that’s “soccer” to Americans, or “a riot” to any counter without the sport) (kidding, I’m kidding, no angry e-mails) to Discworld. Against this football backdrop, Pratchett tells the story of Romeo and Juliet. This time, with each of them coming from a family which supports opposing football teams.
Vetinari decides that it’s time to make football official and legal and expects Unseen University, the home of the wizards, to put together a team.
Also, Juliet becomes the first Supermodel of Discworld (of Dwarf fashion, no less).
Much like Making Money , the book just doesn’t gel together. It seems to go in an awful lot of directions and talk and ruminate and then, eventually, end. The other weird thing is how little the novel really has to do with the initial premise I’ve just stated above, either football OR a retelling of Romeo and Juliet. In fact, Trev (Romeo) and Juliet (Juliet) are quickly bumped to background character status, in favor of Ridcully, the Arch-Chancellor of Unseen University, Ponder Stibbons, who is the only competent person at the University, and therefore runs the place from behind the scenes. There is also Miss Glenda, who runs the university night kitchen, and Mister Nutt, who is very smart, and fast, and capable and green, and who desperately needs to acquire worth.
One big problem is that the plot ambles nowhere in particular, as I mentioned above. Then, in the last few pages, we get a very fast wrap-up of the plot, done at such a high speed that it’ll leave your head spinning. This plot problem is really too bad, because in Nutt and Glenda — particularly Glenda — we have some amazing, compellingly strong characters. They’ve just got nothing to do in the course of the book.
Another thing I found odd is that characters we’ve seen in other books, like Ridcully, or Vetinari to a lesser extent — and Sam Vimes as well — appear to have totally different personalities in this book. I’m not quite sure why that is, but it was disconcerting. The Ridcully you see in Unseen Academicals is drastically different from the Ridcully you would see in Hogfather, for example.
(And for no apparent reason, we have a second character appear named “Nobbs,” who feels like a joke that never quite happens.)
Having made these complaints, however, I must point out some of the things that do make this book worth reading, even if they aren’t elements that can support the book. There are good bits here.
The first good bit I’ve already mentioned, which is Miss Glenda and Mister Nutt. They’re shining stars in the book, and I came away adoring them both. Mister Nutt is a bit of a Mary Sue character, but in a way, this is part of the point of his character, and it’s addressed a little bit. The runaway star, though, was Miss Glenda, who has been good and responsible and poor and hardworking all of her life, and is more than a little bitter about it, particularly around young, beautiful, dumb, happy Juliet, whom she both dislikes and loves.
Miss Glenda leads me to the next good bit of the book, which is that we get to see the city of Ankh-Morpork from the bottom of the working class, looking up, in a way that we’ve never gotten to before. Even in Sam Vimes novels, when he’s at street level, he’s still got some power, and some big picture. But in this book, again where Miss Glenda is particularly concerned, we are looking at the city and familiar characters through the eyes of someone who’s poor, tired, overworked, at the bottom, and has no epic narrative. There’s also the character of Trev (Romeo, in a way), who’s something of a delinquent, and who is occasionally trying to get away before coppers show up and arrest them.
I really wish the book had a lot more material coming from the street level, because I found it really compelling. It was a terrific way to look at Ankh-Morpork. Even famously unsuccessful character Cut My Own Throat Dibbler would be too high-up for this street level. We see Miss Glenda, and Troll Cabs, and Verity Pushpram the fish vendor, and other characters on this level. It’s lovely, and humanizing.
(A side note: you probably know this, but once upon a time in real life, coppers were nicknamed “The Bill.” In the book, they’re nicknamed “The Sams,” which is not only a terrific parody of the original term, but logical, since they’re Sam Vimes’ coppers. I particularly liked that.)
Finally, a last good bit, is that there are a number of sequences in the book — particularly where characters are just talking — which have a fierce melancholy, or anger, to them. Sequences which deliver an emotional impact on the reader, even as the scene itself is going nowhere in particular. Most of these were momentary reflections about family, and growing old, and one particularly potent metaphor about crab buckets which I won’t soon forget.
Some books, I’m happy to review and just say “steer clear of this one,” but I don’t quite think this is one of those. That said, it’s certainly not a book I’d recommend. I wouldn’t be handing it to people and saying “You have got to read this.” I do think that the book has enough odds and ends in ti which are really good that someone who is already a Terry Pratchett fan should give it a read. Then again, if one is a Pratchett fan and has enjoyed previous books, that might cause this one to fall flat (as it did for me).
I think part of the problem is that this book is following up the titles I mentioned before, Going Postal or Night Watch or some others like that, and it just can’t stand next to them. At least for me, I’m afraid it just couldn’t compete.
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