Friday, January 21, 2011

Unseen Academicals (Terry Pratchett)

Of all of Sir Terry Pratchett's Discworld 'sub-worlds' (Death, witches, The Watch, and the wizards), it is the wizards' world to which I least gravitate. Strange as it may sound, I find it easier to relate to a group of city policemen or stories about a hooded figure in black who speaks in ALL CAPS. I thought that I would approach Unseen Academicals with an obligatory air, to just read it because it was part of the series. Perhaps I did, in the beginning, but towards the end, I realized that there was finally a wizard-centric Discworld novel that I truly liked.

Unseen Academicals is a story about football--the Patrician has pressured the Unseen University into organizing the unruly local game foot the ball--but like most of Sir Pratchett's works, there's more here than meets the eye. It is a story of acceptance, destiny, forbidden love, and yes, even fashion. There's even the inclusion of one of my fave Discworld characters, the editor-in-chief of The Times so there's a healthy bit of journalism in there as well.

Integral to the story are four young people--or three young people and a grey creature. There's Trevor Likely, son of a local football legend, who has vowed never to play after his father's death; Juliet, object of Trev's affections and mysterious 'it' girl of dwarven fashion; Glenda, Juliet's friend and protector who runs the Night Kitchen at the University and is known to give everyone a piece of her mind (as well as a slice of pie); and finally the enigmatic Nutt from Uberwald, who works in the University's candle vats but has a brilliant mind -- the kind that can do mental sums and whip a fledgling football team into championship shape.

Some people not used to Sir Pratchett's style may find Unseen Academicals hard to get into because of the different plots in the beginning, but everything does come together in a grand Ankh-Morpork sports drama. What sold me on the series was Glenda (finally a Discworld character to whom I could really relate). Sir Pratchett writes, 'Glenda [...] never found anything good in her size and indeed seldom found anything in her size. In theory, something should fit, but all she ever found was facts, which are so unbecoming (p149).' She likes making everyone's business her own, she doesn't hesitate to make her opinions known, and she is loyal to a fault. Easy to see why I like her. But underneath this Avon-selling, romance novel-reading cook is a good soul and I really admired how she utilized in this novel.

Another reason why I enjoyed the novel was Sir Pratchett's artful way of mixing sharp wit with tug-at-the-heartstrings drama. With lines like 'I had deja vu without the original vu (p140)', the novel can still make me laugh out loud. But pair this with '... some fools shine like stars (p116)' from Nutt's adept psychoanalysis of Trev's relationship with his father, and you get a well-balanced novel that shows how an entertaining read can also play with your emotions. I still believe that Sir Terry Pratchett writes his best work when he works with his Watch novels, but Unseen Academicals exceeded my expectations. Recommended for fans.

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