Unseen Academicals, by Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett’s Alzheimers diagnosis has not yet significantly affected his creative skill. There were times in Unseen Academicals that I got distracted away from it, but I blame my fractured attention span, not the book itself.

It’s sometimes hard to explain Terry Pratchett’s style to people who’ve never read him or even heard much about him. Discworld is a rich and complex world, just set at a 45-degree angle from ours. Pratchett’s language use and wordplay feels kind of similar to Douglas Adams to me, too. It’s bits like this:

Truth is female, since truth is beauty rather than handsomeness; this, Ridcully reflected as the Council grumbled in, would certainly explain the saying that a lie could run around the world before Truth has got its, correction, her boots on, since she would have to choose which pair – the idea that any woman in a position to choose would have just one pair of boots being beyond rational belief. Indeed, as a goddess she would have lots of shoes, and thus many choices: comfy shoes for home truths, simple clogs for universal truths and possibly some kind of slipper for self-evident truth.

that add so much to Discworld and make me love it so much. Abstracts are characters just like the mortals [I can’t quite say humans, because there are also vampires, werewolves, trolls, dwarves, etc. Any stock fantasy creature is present in the Discworld].

Pratchett’s books, especially the more recent ones, take an element of “our” (20th/21st century British) society and see what the Discworld does with it. Unseen Academicals is mostly about football, with a bit of fashion modelling thrown in, set against a bit of Romeo and Juliet (but only a bit). If I have any complaints, it’s that the ‘fashion world’ could have had its own book, or possibly tabloid culture which was touched on a bit but not explored as much as it might have been.

I’m also afraid that, for me, Pratchett might end up in the same category as Dick Francis: a writer that I am so familiar with and enjoy so much that I end up being overly critical of new publications. I know that I’m going to like it, so I don’t need to focus on the high points (such as the increasingly disturbing repetition of the word “worth”) and instead I find the things that don’t work as well (like the abruptness of the formal reveal of Nutt’s….race? species? whatever you call it).

I liked Unseen Academicals a lot, as expected, but it tries to fit in a bit too much, I’m afraid. Story-wise, there’s football and fashion and the “downstairs” of the university. Message-wise, there’s rivalries and mob mentality and prejudice/racism. It’s a lot for one book – and it manages to get it all in successfully, but it might have been better if it had been more limited in breadth, so that it could have had a bit more depth.

The new characters are fantastic. Glenda is wonderful, Nutt is wonderful (although, as I mentioned, the mystery of his race/species/whatever drags on for a bit too long, considering that we haven’t had any backstory that I remember in previous books), Pepe is quite hilarious. Trevor and Juliet are collections of cliches, but they work. I love seeing Ponder Stibbons stand up for himself a little bit more than he’s done in the past. I personally love the Watch, so I was a little disappointed at their relatively small role, but that’s a matter of preference, not a flaw.

I don’t think it’s going to be one of my ‘all-time favourites’ of Pratchett’s books (like I said, I love the Watch….and Death. Death is awesome.) but it’s definitely one that I’m going to reread. Probably several times.

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