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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Unseen Academicals

Unseen Academicals
(Discworld Series #37)
By Terry Pratchett
4/5 stars

In the "Star Trek:  The Next Generation" series there was an episode called "Lower Decks" that focused on a group of young people serving in minor positions on the Enterprise instead of the usual group of head honchos.  That is essentially what happens in "Unseen Academicals" which focuses on the people who work in the Night Kitchen and the candle vats of Unseen University, the school for wizards in the city of Ankh-Morpork.

Ostensibly though the book is about the game of foot-the-ball or football (or soccer as we call it across the Pond).  In Ankh-Morpork, the game of foot-the-ball is actually more like rugby, with a lot of tackling and fighting and very little scoring.  Young Trevor Likely's father was a legend because he scored 4 goals.

Trevor works in the candle vats of Unseesn University with Nutt, a very learned goblin who talks like a shelf of self-help books.  Nutt has a Mysterious Past that not even he remembers.  Eventually though Trev and Nutt go up to the Night Kitchen, where they meet the plain, fat Glenda and the beautiful, ditzy Juliet.

As it happens Juliet is from the Stoops family, who are sworn enemies of Trev's family because of their foot-the-ball allegiances.  Trev & Juliet doesn't play out like Romeo & Juliet because tragedy is not ever really on the menu in the Discworld.  Nutt does a little Cyrano in writing a poem to help woo Juliet, which would work better if Juliet could read words of more than one syllable.

Oh yes, there is a football game in there too.  The wizards of Unseen University discover that they have to play a game of football in order to keep a bequest that keeps their Night Kitchen stocked.  (If there's one thing wizards really like it's their kitchen.)  When some new old rules are "discovered" from a museum, a new brand of foot-the-ball is born with Nutt taking the lead as coach.

This book utilizes two recurring theme-like items in the Discworld series.  One is equal rights/tolerance, which is embodied by Nutt.  Goblins (or what Nutt really is) being the latest in a line that includes dwarfs, trolls, werewolves, vampires, and golems who break the racial barrier in Ankh-Morpork.  The other theme-like substance is modernizing the city.  The police force, post office, bank, and Unseen University itself have all been dramatically remodeled since the earliest Discworld novels.  As well football joins other modern things like newspapers, movies, the Internet, and rock music to become part of the fabric of Disc society.  So really while the book is entertaining (as most Discworld books are) it's not anything fans of the series haven't really seen before.

What bugged me about the previous book "Making Money" was that there was no money made in it; the actual printing of money seemed like it would be taking place off the pages.  I feared that Pratchett was going to do the same here and have the football game take place off the page, but he does at least manage to get it in, even if it is a bit underwhelming.  While it was nice to see Rincewind (with a cameo by The Luggage) and the Librarian again, I wish they could have been used more.

That the book doesn't focus on any of the major characters in the end means that this can be filed away as "Minor Discworld" along with one-offs like "Pyramids," "Small Gods," "The Truth," and "Monstrous Regiment."  Since football (soccer) hooliganism isn't a big thing here in the States, I'm sure some of the jokes in this one went over my head; British readers would then probably enjoy this more.

Still, it's not a bad entry in the series, but not an overly important one either.  You could do a lot worse.

That is all.

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