Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett. ★★★★1/2
Unseen Academicals is the thirty-seventh book in the Discworld series, and not one I’d recommend starting with. While Unseen Academicals does stand alone, it contains a plethora of references to other books in the series, possibly the most self referential of any Discworld novels. Thus, I would suggest starting with Guards! Guards!, The Wee Free Men, Monstrous Regiment, or Going Postal instead.
On the surface, Unseen Academicals is about sports. Ponder Stibbons, the new Master of Tradition of the Unseen University, has discovered that over eighty percent of the university’s food budget is covered by a bequest that stipulates they put forth a football (or soccer, if you’re American) team at least once every twenty years. Time is run out, and for the sake of the cheese cart, the wizards must play football.
What Unseen University is really about is community. Being in the midst of a community can be a wonderful thing as you can feel supported and like you belong. But being in a community can also hold you back when you worry about how others will perceive you. You end up placing limits on yourself about what is “sensible” and never think about what it is you actually want. And it’s so easy for a community to turn on someone they perceive as different.
‘”First, never, ever apologize for anything that doesn’t need apologizing for,” said Glenda. “And especially never apologize for just being yourself.”‘
Unseen Academicals of course includes the faculty of the Unseen University, who should now be familiar from countless other Discworld books from Moving Pictures on. However, the majority of Unseen Academicals is focused around four new characters who all work in the servants quarters of the university. Glenda and Juliet are both cooks in the Night Kitchen while Trev and Mister Nutt deal with the university’s endless demand for candles. Other reviews have pointed out that these characters fall into general types you see in other Discworld novels. While I think that’s true to a certain extent, I believe that all four are distinctive and that if they can be considered a “type” they are the best of that type Discworld has to offer.
Glenda is a sensible young woman who compulsively sorts out other people’s problems. In the back of her mind, she remembers her mother, who was so consumed with hard work and other people’s affairs that she had no time left for herself. Mister Nutt is a highly intelligent and educated goblin who is obsessed with finding worth. Trev is the orphaned son of the football’s biggest legend. Juliet is beautiful and maybe not as stupid as she appears. It’s hinted that she could grow and do a lot more if Glenda let her make her own decisions. I love all four of them and their friendships with each other. Glenda Sugarbean is a particular favorite of mine, and I love her growth through the novel. It’s a pity you don’t see more about her in the fandom.
“A lot hinges on the fact that, in most circumstances, people are not allowed to hit you with a mallet. They put up all kinds of visible and invisible signs that say ‘Do not do this’ in the hope that it’ll work, but if it doesn’t, then they shrug, because there is, really, no mallet at all.”
The pacing is slower than many of the other Discworld novels. I also think the ending was weak, although that could because the climax was a football game and I have little interest in sports. I actually liked Unseen Academicals better than previously after this reread. There was a lot about it that I’d never noticed before.
While Unseen Academicals is not the best Discworld novel, it’s far from the worst. I’d say it’s in the better half of the series. Still, given the number of reoccurring characters who make appearances and sly references to other novels, I wouldn’t recommend reading it without experience in Discworld. However, if you’re familiar with the series, I’d encourage you to pick up Unseen Academicals.