Saturday, 17 October 2009

Book Review: Unseen Academicals

An urgent discovery in the records of Unseen University results in the faculty being forced to form a football team - or risk losing their cheeseboard... Fortunately, this coincides nicely with the Patrician's plans to regulate and control the ancient 'sport', so that's ok then! Complete with supporting cast of supermodels, cooks, dribblers and goblins.

Actually, that's not entirely accurate. In reality, the supporting cast are the main players in the book, despite the title and cover art. It's probably for the best; much though I love characters like Rincewind and the Patrician, a novel solely about football would try my patience, even one written by Pratchett. I'm not a football fan in the slightest - there's two teams of 11, and they kick a ball about, and that's about all my expertise. I'm aware that there is an off-side rule, but it may as well be written in Klingon for all that I can understand it! So Pratchett gets a massive boost in my rating for his latest, simply for managing to keep me engrossed throughout a novel that is, largely, about a sport that I'm indifferent to at best.

The key question for any Discworld review, to my mind, is not whether it is well written and plotted, but how it compares against previous installments. Pratchett seems to be incapable of writing a bad book - even his weakest, 'Eric', can only be fairly criticised as being a bit closer to average than he usually gets. And his most recent books, 'Making Money' and 'Nation', have definitely been at the lesser end of the scale. Not bad books by any stretch of the imagination - indeed, they're very good. Just not quite as good as Pratchett usually is. Specifically, 'Making Money', while well-written and funny, felt like filler, existing to add a little more expansion to the Discworld universe, without really affecting any of the characters in it. The fact that, plotwise, it was essentially a retread of 'Going Postal' didn't help matters. 'Nation' suffered from a few passages that I felt to be a tad smug and patronising. Nevertheless, as I say, Pratchett's weaker efforts are still better than many authors at their best.

'Unseen Academicals' continues this tradition. The writing is traditionally excellent, with no excess passages that I can recall - even if they aren't strictly necessary, every passage seems to have a joke that made me snigger. In fact, throughout the book I ranged from sniggering to uncontrollable laughter that left me incapable of holding the book. In terms of humour, it's a welcome return to the earlier books in the series; more recent entries have been no less funny, but in a more 'knowing chuckle' fashion than real belly laughs. 'U.A' strikes a nice balance between the two.

As stated above, there are several new characters introduced throughout the book, and some old faces get new leases of life (if you're a Pratchett fan, you'll love what's happened to the Dean...). I can't fault any of the character moments, bar Death's solitary appearance, which feels a little token. Rincewind gets the funniest moment in the book, and Ridcully and the Patrican are joys to read, as ever. But it's the new characters who shine, particularly the weirdly erudite Mr Nutt and Pepe the fashionista. Pepe, especially, feels like Pratchett met someone, and simply shoved them into the manuscript straight away. Totally true to life, while simultanously being a massive caricature. The plot, while obvious in the broad details, still manages to wring tension and interest out of every scene, even when you're sure of the final result - the final match being a perfect example.

However, no book is without it's faults, not even one by Terry Pratchett. The opening scene sets up a plot strand which is subsequently vaguely referred to, and equally vaguely resolved, but the resolution does not feel satisfactory, to my mind. The villain of the piece is one of Pratchett's weakest, not because of any fault in the writing, but simply because he's just a thug from the streets. Given that half the cast is made up of some of the biggest movers and shakers in Ankh-Morpork, he never really feels like a serious threat to the ultimate plot, although in fairness, he's a suitable personal threat. As I've said, the basic thread of the plot is fairly predictable, but the details and world building balance that (yes, 37 books in, and Pratchett still hasn't perfected his vision - you have to admire someone so dedicated to making their world work).

But taken as a whole, these are minor flaws, and it's probably Pratchett's best book since 'Thud', although not quite up there with his best works ('Small Gods', 'Night Watch' and 'Carpe Jugulum', for me). It likely won't win over any new readers, but seriously, if you're going to start reading a series 37 books in... While the flaws may seem nitpicky, for a novelist of Pratchett's stature and ability, that's the level of criticism I have to operate on. When you take into account his Alzheimer's, maintaining this level of quality is just astonishing. Thoroughly recommended.

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