Unseen Academicals: Book Review

Unseen Academicals is the thirty-seventh book in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld saga and can be included in the subset of the wizards’ books even if the protagonists, in fact, are only people who work at Unseen University without using magic. Come to think of it, the book introduces a new aspect of Ankh-Morpork, football, a bit like Going Postal introduces the postal service or The Truth journalism.

Pratchett creates many new characters, and also an apparently very popular sport in town even if there is no trace of it in the previous books, foot-the-ball (it’s an extremely violent version of football), using only as supporting characters the well-known Vetinari, Archancellor Mustrum Ridcully, and Ponder Stibbons, a wizard with multiple roles at the university who practically runs the shack by handling all possible and imaginable bureaucratic matters.

The real protagonists of the book are others: Glenda, a determined woman in charge of the university’s night kitchen, Juliet, her beautiful assistant, Trev Likely, a boy who wants to change his life and who works in the dungeons making candles, and the mysterious as well as cult and intelligent Mr. Nutt, who works with Trev. The bizarre events that lead the wizards to face a city selection (Ankh-Morpork United) in a football field start from an old clause vital for the financing of the University’s food supplies, from the usual obscure plans of Lord Vetinari , and from the increasingly established dwarven fashion with its shows for the high society of Ankh-Morpork (here’s the notable character of Pepe, key figure in the glittering world of fashion, and also an impressive alcoholic).

How can I distinguish the protagonists from the plethora of characters appearing in the story (in fact, our longtime friend Rincewind is also there, as well as the necromancer Dr Hix with his skull ring that allows him to go against the rules according to the statute of the University, and the old Dean of the University now Archancellor of a more modern institution competing with the Unseen University)? It’s simple: the three protagonists have well-defined character arc, at the end of the story they are different from what they were at the beginning.

Glenda, at first glance, is the classic Pratchettian person of common sense, but before the end of the story she changes her mind on various things that she took for granted such as young Trev or on what’s the right thing to do for Juliet. Trev is initially at the mercy of the events and his friendships and background, plus he has a heavy surname to bear (his father was a legendary foot-the-ball player and died on the pitch), but at the end he proves himself as the hero of the decisive match and also manages to conquer the beautiful Juliet. And the latter, the Juliet of the love story with her Romeo (naturally Trev and Juliet come from families supporting opposing clubs), finds her way into the world of fashion and abandons the way that Glenda was tracing for her safely in the night kitchen of the University.

In short, Unseen Academicals is a solid Discworld story in which there are dozens and dozens of brilliant passages1 (and some also quite sharp remarks on modern society, as usual2); the protagonists move in a familiar world which never stops evolving (here the Koom Valley agreement signed between trolls and dwarves is mentioned several times and it all happened thanks to Vimes in Thud!); and in the end we’re left with a great desire to have more! Ankh-Morpork is a city where I wouldn’t mind living, I admit it…

And then how can I not mention the splendid training sessions of the unlikely foot-the-ball team formed by the wizards? And Bengo Macarona, the wizard with hot Latin blood and good feet who demands that the curve celebrate his goals by using his full name, complete with the numerous academic titles he boasts? But the book also contains some more serious reflections such as those based on the so-called crab mentality, or the crab bucket effect, according to which it’s difficult for an individual belonging to a group to be able to get out of it because others will do everything to undermine his self-esteem out of envy and a sense of competition. And what does it mean to live a life of value? The theme of classism and the division between the common people and the ruling elite is one of the main themes of the book, albeit seen through the lens of (un)organized sport.

However, I cannot recall all the superb passages of the book3, Unseen Academicals is more than 500 pages long, and I would recommend it without a shadow of a doubt! Ciao!

1. On how Juliet works in the kitchen: “Juliet didn’t exactly wash dishes, she gave them a light baptism” (Juliet non è che lavasse i piatti, li battezzava dolcemente). And about Ponder Stibbons: “most of the jobs he was asked to do did not need doing, and most of the senior wizards did not care if they were not done, provided they were not not done by themselves.”  

2. Sul calcio: “it’s (…) like war, but without the kindness and consideration!” And, talking about war: “Maybe there had been true evil there, but apparently the evil was, oddly enough, always on the other side“. A final example on newspapers and media: “I seriously think they think that it’s their job to calm people down by first off all explaining why they should be overexcited and very worried.”

3. Here’s one: “Don’t be smart. Smart is only a polished version of dumb. Try intelligence. It will surely see you through.

Index of the Discworld Reviews


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