Where to start?
I picked up Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett on Thursday evening and couldn’t put it down again until I finished it. That’s a good start. Says something worth knowing about the book, I think. Otherwise? Well…
First of all: The synopsis is a bit on the scrawny side and there is nothing on the back at all, so you’re screwed if you see this book without being able to open it. (There are bookshops in Germany that are cruel enough to wrap their merchandise in cellophane to prevent the customers from opening the books.) Of course, I would buy a Discworld book simply because it is a Discworld book. Kind of a no-brainer for me. But anyway, here we go. (There will be some very minor spoilers, so some of you might want to skip the next paragraph only; the rest of the review will be spoiler free, promise.)
Ponder Stibbons, the man that nowadays more or less runs the UU (only that he doesn’t, not officially), notices a slight problem with the bookkeeping. An old grant, one that pays for well over eighty percent of the food budget (and if you know your wizards you know how important that is), is about to be revoked if the wizards don’t play the game of foot-the-ball, and real soon at that. The cheeseboard is at stake! So a team needs to be formed and trained and again, if you know your wizards you know that there is no W in Team. Also the patrician doesn’t really like the game, but since when has Archchancellor Ridcully ever been afaid of him? And then there is the mysterious Mr. Nutt. No one quite knows what he is and what to make of him, including himself, but a whole lot of important people seem to think he is very interesting indeed. Also he’s from Uberwald, and nothing harmless ever came out of Uberwald (says Igor). And then there’s micromail and the beautiful Juliet, both more multi-faceted than you would think at first sight. And Glenda, the maker of perfect pies. And Trev Likely, the son of the most famous foot-the-ball player the Disc has ever seen, only he’s promised his poor old mum never to play. And, to quote the book, the most important thing about football, pardon, foot-the-ball, is that it is not just about football. But you can read that much on the jacket of the book, so I’m not telling you anything new. (It’s very true, nevertheless, so keep that in mind.)
This is the first Discworld book that I have read since I (and the world) became aware that Terry Pratchett is suffering from Alzheimer’s. Actually it is the first Discworld book since then, period. I read Nation and enjoyed it a lot. But I was wondering if his disease would affect his writing, or rather his dictating, knowing that due to Alzheimer’s he will have to dictate his books from now on.
Did it affect his writing? Yes and no. The first hundred pages or so of Unseen Academicals are slow. And they feel like listening to a lecture read by an inexperienced lecturer. By that I mean to say that the rhythm of the sentences is somehow off. I can’t put it any better. If you hear a “bad” lecture of this kind, the lecturer will forget to put pauses in his sentences, resulting in blocks of speech that are difficult to parse for the listener. The same can happen to writers. The first draft of more or less everything I write reads like that. In the case of Unseen Academicals it means that often I had to go back and re-read sentences or paragraphs, because they were too long or too convoluted. And I don’t mind fancy writing – that’s not what I mean at all. I read Patricia McKillip, for crying out loud.
But then, right around page 116 (we’re talking Doubleday UK edition here) the book undergoes a stunning transformation. I didn’t like the book’s protagonist, Mr. Nutt, very much up until then. I shall try to keep this as spoiler free as possible, so let me just say that there is some question as to his ancestry, which Pratchett seemingly addresses and resolves early in the book. Only… well, he’s done that kind of thing before. I’m thinking of Angua and of Lobsang Ludd, and I’m sure there are others that I can’t remember right now.
Anyway. The character made me groan in the beginning, but I should have had more trust in Pratchett. That’s what happens if you think that one of your favourite authors is losing his edge. Bad, bad reader. Now go and sit in a corner, and you won’t get any dessert.
What happens on page 116? A speech. You don’t need to know what it is about or who gives it. Just read the book and find out for yourself why it is so heart-stoppingly beautiful that it made me weep. And after that it is all joy and brilliance and great storytelling. I can’t promise that it will be the same experience for you, but this is what I felt.
So, now we’ve been to page 116 and have talked about that. We’re left with 283 pages of book. What are they about? Football. Well, in part, anyway.
I don’t like football. Think it is a stoopid thing to get obsessed about. Don’t play it myself, but can see why it could be fun. Me? I’m too afraid to get the ball smack in my face. As for football fans… well, let’s just say that proximity to the sport, even filtered through a TV set, seems to have an adverse effect on the cognitive powers of the subject. That’s my opinion. Sorry.
Will you not like the book if you hate football? Hardly. Because the book is, in my opinion, not about football. At least not that much. That’s just a setting, a backdrop. What the book is actually about is friendship. And loyalty. And, yes, I’ll admit it, it’s about the feeling of being part of a group, such as fanatic football fans or the Unseen Academicals. And about mircomail. Good stuff that, doesn’t chafe.
It’s also about overcoming our differences, both in terms of belief and in terms of race. And it is extremely touching.
I like the recent Pratchetts. A lot of folks tell me that it’s not the same anymore. They’re darker. And more edgy. And less funny. To the first two arguments I say: So what, live with it. To the last one I say: Are you completely off your rocker, you daft nut?! Early Discworld, I mean the first two or three here, is rather crude. I re-read them recently and I saw that god-awful made-for-TV adaptation of The Light Fantastic and The Colour of Magic and it’s just true. They’re more a joke-overburdened spoof of every fantasy cliché that you can think of than books. It’s good that the first Discworld book I ever read was Mort. Now, the middle books, if you can call them that, are great. I love the witches, and Rincewind and the watch. Mort, Pyramids and Small Gods are still among my favourite books of all time. But the later ones, Hogfather being an early example and then more or less everything after The Truth, display a depth that the old books didn’t have, I think. And I like it, I like it a lot. Unseen Academicals is a perfect example of what I mean. It’s still hilariously funny, but it also deals with a lot of heavy topics. Like, for example, racism and coming to grips with your own ancestry.
I hate books, or movies for that matter, where the hero/the heroine/the people find out that they/their granddad/their elders/the founders are not what they previously seemed to be. It always, without fail, leads to a deep crisis of faith out of which the hero emerges, stronger, better, knowing that although his/her/its life is forever and very fundamentally changed by what he/she/it has learned, they are better people for it. And I think it’s utter crap.
Say you’ve been adopted. And on your eighteenth birthday you find out that your real dad was a famous… pilot. Only you’re scared of heights and want to be a painter. Do you go to pilot school the next day? Do you? Depends on if you’re in a book or in real life, I fear. Well, anyway (wiping froth off my mouth), I was pleased to find that Unseen Academicals approaches the subject with a more healthy attitude. And it is a better book for it.
What else remains to be said? Favourite bits, you say? Well, I suppose I have to mention it, so let’s get it over and done with. My favourite Discworld novel so far is Thief of Time. I absolutely love it. One of the chief reasons for that is the love story. I think Lobsang Ludd and Susan hooking up is one of the best things since sliced bread. And now he’s gone and done it again. That’s all I’ll say, promise. Don’t want to spoil anything. (But man is it cute!)
So, bottom line: Unseen Academicals is a wonderful book. It started out a bit slow for me, but I’m still trying to figure out how much of that is due to my own wretched preconceptions, so it might not necessarily feel the same to others. And the rest of the book makes up more than adequately for any faults, perceived or otherwise, that the begining may have. It’s got everything: Vetinari, Ridcully, Death, lots of pies, Rincewind, football, fashion, love and a possessed whistle. What more can you ask for? Not much. Now go and read the book. (Actually, since you ask: another book featuring Mr. Nutt, if you would be so good, Mr. Pratchett.)