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UNSEEN ACADEMICALS

A novel by Terry Pratchett (2009, Corji)
An Unseen University Novel

The tyrant of Ankh-Morpork uncovers old rules for the traditional football game, commissioning the Unseen University professors to recreate and show off the game, while harboring a goblin with a deep secret.

 

 

Read August 20th to September 4th, 2011  
    Wearying, at least until the author got to the point of the tale, and then it wasn't as interesting as I thought it should have been.

The incentive to read a Terry Pratchett book is its humor, which is very subtle and not usually laugh-out-loud. The funny parts are usually due to the run-on sentences, and the thoughts that the characters have, which are often ones that everyday people would have, except they don't usually surface in a book, nor in polite conversation. The narration often goes into asides only tangentially related to what is happening, or sometimes not at all. When pronouncing names and often sentences, it is distinctly British.

This is the first Discworld novel I've read that doesn't contain Granny Weatherwax, though her hometown is mentioned at one point. This novel belongs to the Unseen University, and an experiment by the tyrant Lord Vetinari in several things, most notably introducing the old rules of soccer to Ankh-Morpork (as opposed to the anarchic ones currently used), and introducing a goblin with a deep secret into society at the University.

The main character is really Glenda, the chief cook in the night kitchen at the University. She is full of opinions and thinks a lot, which is a lot more than most residents do. She takes care of beautiful Juliet, who is chosen to model some new dwarven chain-micro-mail, and becomes a sensation. She watches as Trev Likely falls in love with Juliet and changes from an urchin of the University basement to a thinking man who gains some self-respect. She watches as Vetinari changes the game of football into something she doesn't recognize, and knows what he is doing, trying to create something he can control, rather than outlawing it in the streets.

And she realizes that Nutt, the goblin who dribbles excellent candles, knows a lot more than he ever lets on, and what he does show is very impressive.

Juliet's fashion show is almost unrelated to the story, except that it creates an opening for Pepe the dwarf from the underworld (read: crime) to showcase the micromail that is supposed to save Trev's life in the soccer match at the end of the book. Except that it's pretty much a letdown in how that happens. Regardless, we see Juliet turn from a complete airhead into somebody who can cook pies and actually form opinions on soccer and relationships.

Trev starts the book as somebody who can do marvels with a tin can kicked by his foot, and who lets Nutt do all his work for him, since he does it better than Trev would, anyway. He has contacts on the street, but is smart enough, especially when Nutt urges him to think, to get away from Andy and stay away, whenever possible. He is friendly to the kitchen staff so that he can mooch pies and try to press his body against Glenda, until he sees Juliet. The combination of Juliet and Nutt changes Trev completely, releasing all the potential he has inside him. He knows that if he gets onto the soccer field, he'll be a prime target for Andy and his thugs, so he refuses to play, except that due to various injuries he is forced into the game. With Glenda's quick thinking by switching the soccer ball for Trev's can, he scores the winning goal, and survives, partially thanks to the micro-mail.

Football has the longest progression in the book, from the rough-and-tumble in the streets at the beginning, through the development of the various rules by Ridcully (who is never bound by reality, as long as it sounds good), Rincewind, Ponder Stibbons (who is so rooted in the real world that it's hilarious to see everybody around him), the orangutan librarian, and others devise according to an ancient cup unearthed recently. They replace the wood-wrapped-in-a-sack with something that bounces and doesn't hurt the foot when kicked! It's actually mildly funny to see them try and teach the rules to the professors, whose grasp of rules is less than stellar (even their own classes are hardly ever attended -by themselves). The climax of the book is the big soccer game, which is cleverly devised, but not very interesting, for such a monumental event. It ends up in a tie, because Archchancellor Ridcully gives one of the university's goals to the opposition. But the game is so rough (even the librarian is lost from the game), that when Nutt (as replacement in nets can't win the game for them) and Trev (who can't kick anything but his tin can into the net) become replacement players, the tackles are so hard that the referee calls the game on the tie-breaking goal.

I'm not sure if this is a victory for the tyrant or not.

The experiment with Mr. Nutt the goblin is by far the most dangerous. It turns out he is an orc, a race bred for use in wars. Everybody shivers at the term orc, and remembers them only in old tales as savage beasts who tore people to shreds. The histories never mentioned that it was people who directed them to do so. Everyone thinks they were wiped out, but the survivors actually live far away. Nutt was chained to an anvil for years as he unlearned how to be an orc. While he is at the university, he is only ever pleasant and a gentleman. When he is killed at the football game on the streets, he comes back to life (and eats a kitchen full of pies afterwards!). He seems to have read every book in existence, and knows all sorts of obscure social references (most of which are turned slightly askew from our world, making them amusing). He can also deduce the accurate rules of football, which he teaches to the academicals.

Just before the game, Nutt goes into a trance and unlocks a secret door in his mind, in which it is revealed that he is an orc. He tries to run away, but Glenda and his friends follow him, catching up to him in a crossroads town (Juliet gets them there fast by promising a kiss to the driver- that's how fair she is). Nutt is overwhelmed by the love his friends give him, and is able to put his identity behind him, hoping the people of Ankh-Morpork can do the same. At the soccer game, they do, as he helps win the game.

There is a lot of good stuff in this book, and it's fun in a way to sift through the asides and interludes and amusing histories to get to it. But I never quite got engrossed in the story, nor the humor, which I used to enjoy more.

 
   

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