Many Terry Pratchett fans will tell you that his DISCWORLD novels are really social satire masquerading as fantasy. With the more recent installments, this has become even more apparent, as they have often taken on a very specific subject or theme. The Truth: Terry Pratchett about journalism. Making Money: banking. Going Postal: well… the postal service. The most recent addition to the series, Unseen Academicals, is another example of this, as it takes on sports, with a minor focus on the fashion industry.
In Ankh-Morpork, the slightly grubby and always fascinating metropolis that’s the setting for many DISCWORLD novels, the ancient sport of foot-the-ball is not just the main entertainment of the working classes, it’s practically a way of life. Every neighborhood has its own team, rivalries are long-lived and vicious, and wearing your team’s colors is practically a must for safe passage through certain areas. The sport combines aspects of current-day soccer (or football, for our non-US readers) with rugby and, well, more or less full-scale warfare, and is such a big deal to Ankh-Morporkians that it’s almost incomprehensible that we haven’t heard much about it in earlier books in the series.
Meanwhile in Unseen University, the city’s main college of magic, Ponder Stibbons (the most organized and bright wizard of the bunch) has added yet another task to his already huge agenda: he has become the Master of the Traditions, making sure the eternally squabbling group of wizards, between their nine square meals a day and their non-existent lectures, stay in touch with the illustrious history and rituals of their institution. Stibbons discovers that a good part of the university’s endowment depends on an ancient donator’s requirement: the faculty must field a foot-the-ball team. It suddenly becomes vitally important for the wizards to learn and play the game, because if not, roughly 84% of their food budget may be cut…
A separate story, which in the best Terry Pratchett fashion eventually links up with the main plot, focuses on two young women working in the University’s Night Kitchen. Glenda, who runs the kitchen, keeps a watchful eye over her friend Juliet, a gorgeous but slightly empty-headed girl who is fascinated with fashion. Juliet becomes, more or less by accident, Ankh-Morpork’s first supermodel, while Glenda slowly discovers more about one of the University’s professional candle dribblers, Mr. Nutt, who is a mysterious and extremely intelligent… goblin?
Unseen Academicals is a decent addition to the DISCWORLD series. On the plus side, I definitely enjoyed the focus on the Unseen University wizards, as well as my favorite overall character of the series, Havelock Vetinari, the benevolent dictator of Ankh-Morpork. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments when the wizards are center stage, and lots of incisive snarkiness from the Patrician. Mr. Nutt is a fascinating character and probably the best part of this novel — and I hope we’ll encounter him in the future. On the negative side, plot-wise this is one of the weaker books in the series. Especially the fashion sub-plot is very thin, and its connection with the main story just didn’t work for me.
After more than 35 novels in the series, reading a new DISCWORLD novel feels like visiting an old friend. It’s pleasantly familiar, meets certain expectations, and doesn’t pose any challenges. It’s the literary equivalent of comfort food. Because of this, Unseen Academicals will probably please many fans, but as much as it pains me to say it, I’d consider it one of the weaker novels in an otherwise excellent series, and definitely a far cry from the brilliance of some of the earlier DISCWORLD books.