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Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett
Review by Paul Haggerty
Harper Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780061161704
Date: 01 October 2009 List Price $25.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

For many, football, or soccer as it is known here in the U.S., is not just a game. To those that love it, it is a way of life. And as it is here in the Roundworld, so it is reflected, and warped, in Pratchett's Discworld. In the vast and turbulent city of Ankh-Morpork, football, or as it is more accurately called by some, foot-the-ball, drives a degree of passion and loyalty in the populous that most religions can only dream of. Taking place throughout the streets of the city, what would be called violent gangs anywhere else, are called teams and fans, who proudly wear their team colors. There are vast throngs of people tracking (but not usually being able to see) the game in a horde which is appropriately known as The Shove. Into this chaotic battle of life and death, Lord Vetinari, Tyrant of Ankh-Morpork, has decided to take the game under his wing. For that to come about, there has to be strict adherence to the ancient rules (you can see them as soon as the ink dries), and of course, an appropriate team. Enter the wizards of the great Unseen University, a bunch of overweight, sedentary, risk adverse, bookworms. Football will never be the same.

Unseen Academicals not only marks a return to the Unseen University, but also gives us a peak at the supporting staff that works there as well. After all, does anybody expect the wizards to cook their own food? And who keeps all the candles lit? As with any institution, there's a small army of people that are rarely seen, and even more rarely appreciated, that keep everything running smoothly. Unseen Academicals, while nominally concerned with football, and the team of the same name which the wizards put together, it's really about four individuals. Glenda and Juliet work in the Night Kitchen, making sure the wizards are kept well stocked with pies and other essential foodstuffs during those long nights when they're supposed to be studying. Trev and Nutt are essential members of the candle dribbling team, making sure that the candles that light the university are both replaced and lit, but also properly dribbled to provide the proper ambiance.

Wizards know ability when they see it. After all, they have to recognize it in order to thwart it in other wizards in the cut-throat world of academia. And as that hallowed concept of Tradition demands that they play, the very large endowment that will be lost if they don't might also need to be factored in, the wizards need these four young people's help if they want to come out of the game alive. And using other peoples talent for personal gain is also a vital skill for any wizard. This set of circumstances and thus solidly cements the movers and shakers of Pratchett's world with the new, and lowly cast members being introduced.

But each of our four has a life and a story of their own, each as vitally important to them as those of the wizards they support. And as in all of Pratchett's stories, it's never really all about what's on the cover of the book. It's about football to be sure, but there are also dwarves making new fashion chainmail for the society set, who think Juliet would be a perfect runway model. Nutt is a protégé of Lady Margolotta of Uberwald (a country with a kind of a Transylvanian feel), and has layers to his personality and background that even he isn't aware of. Trev is an ardent football fan and knows all there is to know about football, and the people in the street that play it. And he definitely knows that it's no game. Glenda is a cook in the Night Kitchen who makes the best pies. But she's also a friend to those around her, and she doesn't take lightly to people endangering her friends. When she sees something wrong, it's her duty to make it right, no matter who or what she needs to convince. In truth, the book is about so many things that any decent summary of the plot would probably be half the size of the novel itself.

So while the Powers that Be pull the strings on all the elements, trying to tame the beast with thousands of screaming voices (and not a few knives), our four young protagonists maneuver through the dark underbelly of the University, the shadowed streets of Ankh-Morpork, and the Oblong Office of Lord Vetinari, trying their best to just survive and maybe make a place for themselves in the world. To them it seems to be all random, but in true Pratchettian style, the strings will all come out right in the end, no matter how far-fetched it might seem. It might not be a fairy-tale ending, but good things do seem to come to those that deserve them. Those that don't, well you won't be heartbroken over them, I'm sure.

The most wonderful thing about the Discworld novels is not actually the plot lines themselves. As enjoyable as they are, it's the logical insanity that Pratchett weaves through his books. Necromancy is banned, so the Unseen University has a Professor of Post-Mortem Communications instead, who by university statues is required to do a quota of "not-nice" things, but fortunately, he's a nice guy, so it all works out. No matter how strange the concept might seem at first glance, Pratchett makes it make sense until Troll Buses are just a background detail that no-one would question.

So come for the humor, or the plot, or the characters, many of whom are old favorites, back for a cameo or bit part. But definitely dive into Unseen Academicals and soak in the ambiance of a world where a disc floating on the backs of four elephants, all riding a turtle, is a perfectly sane and sensible thing to call home. Then go read the other books. There's a whole disc out there, and dozens of novels to help you explore it.

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