Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Unseen Academicals

Unseen Academicals
by Terry Pratchett

The wizards at Ankh-Morpork’s Unseen University are renowned for many things – wisdom, magic, their love of teatime – but athletics is most assuredly not on the list. So when Lord Vetinari, the city’s benevolent tyrant, strongly suggests to Archchancellor Mustrum Ridcully that the university put forth a football team composed of faculty, students, and staff – or lose the funding that pays for their nine daily meals – the more-than-usually-at-sea UU wizards find themselves in a quandary. To begin with, they have to figure out just what it is that makes this sport of foot-the-ball so popular with Ankh-Morpork of all ages and social strata. Then they have to learn how to play it. Oh, and on top of that, they must somehow win a football match without using magic.

And the thing about football – the most important thing about football – is that is is never just football.

Terry Pratchett is a master of turning ordinary things into satirical commentary on the state of society. I have read a fair number of his Discworld series books and they never fail to make me laugh and make me think. I asked for this book for Christmas knowing nothing about it other than the fact that it was Pratchett and that, from the cover, it was about sports.

I don’t even like sports. I never really got into playing them – with the exception, of course, of No Rules Band Class Soccer – and I have never been interested in watching them.

I loved this book. Even for a sports-outsider like me, this book turned the world of competitive football on its head and I loved it. Pratchett literally takes apart the game and boils it down to its base components and by the end of the process you discover that it isn’t even about the game at all in that fantastic mockingly respectful way that Pratchett writes. He makes the sport on even ground and I was rooting for the Academicals along with everyone else by the time this book concluded.

I also really enjoyed Nutt’s self-discovery story as well and how seamlessly it attached itself to the football story. It was a very real and raw story with real trauma there that was poorly handled by Nutt by brilliantly handled by Glenda, who has very definitive ideas about how people should and should not be treated, even if they are something you didn’t expect.

I’d like to point out that Glenda is, perhaps, one of my favourite Discworld characters to date. I believe this is her, as yet, only appearance in the series and she’s wonderful. She’s the head of the Night Kitchen at the University and is a descendant of a brilliant line of pie makers. She herself makes fantastically renowned pies - renowned enough that when she got it into her head to march into the chambers of Lord Vetinari (which is never done if you expect to continue living) and berate him for his Ideas about football, she was actually admitted because she brought a pie with her. She’s wonderfully stubborn and no-nonsense and so real world ordinary that she comes right around to the other side of fantastic.

I’d definitely recommend this to anyone – sports fans, non-sports fans, people who like books who make them think, people who like books that make them laugh… Pratchett’s got something for everyone, I think, and this is just another brilliant addition.

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