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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.

About Peter Damien (33 Articles)
Peter Damien is a busy writer who lives in Minnesota because he just really likes frigid temperatures and mosquitoes. He lives in the crawl-spaces between heaps of books and can be seen scurrying out at dusk to search for food and ALL the TEA. His wife and two boys haven't figured out how to get him out of the house, so they put up with him. He as astonishing hair.

3 Comments on REVIEW: Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett

  1. This does seem to be one of those Pratchett books that divides fans (take a look at Amazon to see how disparate fans views on the novel are), but I for 1 really enjoyed it. I liked the fact that this novel had less of a major theme than some of his more recent books that picked a target and focused exclusively on taking it apart.

    Glenda for was the star of this novel for me, and I hope that she will make more appearances in the Diskworld, Nutt I enjoyed but I do think his story was wrapped up a little too quickly and without the flair that Terry often uses when doing his reveals of such characters. As for Football and modeling, personally I am glad they were relegated to the minor leagues where I feel they belong, providing back ground amusement whilst the real story was told.

  2. Peter Damien // January 18, 2010 at 9:47 am //

    I think that’s part of why it took me so long to review this book. I read it awhile ago. I’ve just been thinking about it. I really LIKE meandering world-exploring novels, or episodes (one of my favorite Star Trek: TNG episodes was the not-that-great-really episode in which we just follow some junior crewmen around for the episode.). So if I like that sort of thing, why did I not care for the book?

    I guess, because it felt like a meeting in which everyone’s saying “We really must do something about this,” the whole time and then at the end, someone says, “Put it in the closet. Let’s break for lunch.” If you follow my dodgy metaphor. 

    I wanted something in the book I could point to, even if it wasn’t football or supermodeling (which, I agree, were just backdrops). For example, in “Monstrous Regiment,” we have the initial book-launching premise of girls pretending to be boys, to go to war. But THAT’S put away quickly in a lot of ways, until the end. Instead, what we deal with is…these are the only soldiers left, all the rest are contained. And this fiercely patriotic country is actually just a small, starving thug. Now what is this monstrous regiment going to do?

    That said, I think Glenda was worth the price of admission to the book, frankly. She was amazing. Pratchett always goes down to uneducated street level (the Colon and Nobby level) and this time, he went even further down, and I really, really enjoyed that. 

    Well, who knows. Maybe I’ll re-read it some time soon and find that I really like it. It’s definitely not a total failure of a novel, nor even so bad that I won’t be re-reading it. 

  3. The first British police force were called “Bobbies” or “Peelers” after Sir Robert Peel.

    Since Sir Terry gets to choose his own titles, they are often significant. The title of Unseen Academicals contains the ideas of something hidden, education, and working together.  I found it helpful to figure out who the “unseen educators” were, and to consider why he kept repeating “It’s not about football.”

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