Friday, 2 October 2009

‘Unseen Academicals’ – Terry Pratchett (Doubleday)


It has been years since I picked up a Terry Pratchett book. I used to love the ‘Discworld’ books and Christmas Mornings were always about getting the latest books and reading it to the exclusion of everything else (about the only thing a Terry Pratchett book couldn’t do was get me out of the annual game of Monopoly...) As time went on though I found myself laughing less and less at the jokes. The books themselves stopped being ‘comedic fantasy’ and became ‘comedic fantasy with a message about the real world’; I wasn’t interested in hearing about the real world (I lived in it so didn’t want to read about as well!) and the more the ‘Discworld’ books came across like this the more I ceased to care about them. And then I stopped reading them altogether. Until the last couple of days...
Sometimes you just have to go back and give something another go, just to see if your feelings are still justified. I always loved reading about the Wizards of Unseen University and anything with the Luggage in it was guaranteed to make me laugh out loud. One look at the front cover of ‘Unseen Academicals’ and I just knew I was going to make the trip back into Ankh-Morpork. I still had the same misgivings though so it was great to be proved wrong and be presented with a book that I ended up really enjoying. I might even go back and pick up the other ones...

Football has come to the streets of Ankh-Morpork and nothing is ever going to be the same again. How could things possibly remain the same when the Wizards of Unseen University must get a team together and play an exhibition match (the future of the cheese board depends on it...) where the use of magic has been expressly forbidden? There are other ways of cheating and Arch-Chancellor Ridcully is determined to find at least one of them...
Factor in Ankh-Morpork’s first supermodel, a maker of extremely good pies, an urchin who’s handy with a tin can and the enigmatic Mr Nutt and set them against the cream of Ankh-Morpork’s hooligan fraternity (or whatever else has floated to the top) and match day is guaranteed to go with a bang. Or a ‘gloing’...

Before I even get to the story I always find that the indicator of a good Terry Pratchett story is whether or not it makes me laugh (and if it does, how much and how loudly). After all, that’s one of the main points of his books isn’t it? Humour’s a subjective thing but as far as I was concerned Pratchett filled ‘Unseen Academicals’ with plenty to grin, chuckle and laugh out loud at. Not all of it hits the mark but a lot of it did when I was reading. If you were sharing a train carriage, this morning, with a bearded guy who kept chuckling to himself... well, that was me. Sorry about that.

‘I agree with the Senior Wrangler,’ said the Lecturer in Recent Runes. ‘Under College Statute we are specifically forbidden to engage, other than within College Precincts, in any magic above level four, unless specifically asked to do so by the civil power or, under clause three, we really want to...’

In ‘Unseen Academicals’, Pratchett proves that he hasn’t lost his touch at raising a smile in his readers. Whether it’s a build up to a running gag or something that’s sneaked into a paragraph, to catch you by surprise, Pratchett has all bases covered.

It’s not just the jokes that move things forward though, although I found myself laughing so much that I wanted to get to the next punch line (nice way to pace a novel). Pratchett also tells a pretty mean tale here, he’s never struck me as a guy who’s into football but he nails what it is all about for the players on the pitch as well as the people in the crowd (I’ve been one myself a couple of times). He doesn’t pass judgment, just lays it all on the line for you to see and tells it how it is. I liked this approach as it’s clear that the story’s the important thing to him. There was a feeling that things weren’t quite as balanced as they could be however. Was this a story about the lives of the four main characters or was it about football? The two didn’t quite gel for me; it didn’t feel like a story of how these characters were affected by the beautiful game...

‘Unseen Academicals’ was a chance for me to get reacquainted with old characters as well as meet some of the new. In some ways it felt like I’d never been away (catching up with Ridcully, Rincewind, the Patrician and even ‘Cut Me Own Throat’ Dibbler) and it was also interesting to see how things had changed as well. Could Glenda be the new Granny Weatherwax? I think she could be...
Despite the fantastical (and occasionally surreal) surroundings, Pratchett never loses sight of the fact that his characters are real people and that real people will always surprise you. Some elements of the story are almost a foregone conclusion but the journey to that conclusion is one worth making. Other elements (and I can’t go into detail here) really threw me. You can see how they should happen but you don’t think it actually will, and then it does... That little hint of the unexpected kept things fresh and kept me reading.

Despite my issue with the balance of the book, ‘Unseen Academicals’ ended up being a welcome return to the Discworld for this reader. Makes me wonder why I stayed away for so long...

Nine and a Half out of Ten

6 comments:

suneokun said...

First time commentor. Really glad that Pratchett hit the mark with the one. His latest efforts have been getting a little 'formulaic' and what with contracting Altzeimers I feared the worse.

If you haven't read it, pick up 'Maurice and his amazing educated rodents'. It's short, very funny and about the tightest story I've ever read from Prachett. It's the first book I recommend to bring people into the Prachett fold as it's very clever but very accessible - it was also written by him for children (although who's children I'm not sure - Einstein's maybe?)

Nice review. Thanks.

Ladytink_534 said...

I've heard nothing but how good Terry Pratchett's Discworld books are yet I somehow missed out as a kid. I really may just have to give them a try!

Mardel said...

Terry Pratchett is my all-time favorite writer. Some of his best books are Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky and Wintersmith; a trilogy for the YA audience. He wrote another recently that wasn't based on discworld, but was a very good book, called Nation. Does this mean that Unseen Academicals is already out? or did you have an ARC?

org said...

Yay- I've enjoyed Pratchett's recent books, but the laughs have been thinner on the ground. Looking forward to catching up with this one.

DanielF said...

Oh it's definitely out - I picked it up yesterday (and read it yesterday). I think Graeme's probably pretty much nailed it in his review, though I thought it was more character-driven than plot driven - and therefore the slight failure to tie all the strands together wasn't too much of an issue (and let's be fair: not everything in life ties neatly together).

So... yeah. There we are.

Aarti said...

Thanks for such an honest review. I've been looking forward to this one, just because it's Pratchett. But I wasn't a huge fan of Making Money.