Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett | Book review

Harry Ritchie reviews the 37th Discworld novel from Terry Pratchett

Unseen Academicals

by Terry Pratchett 400pp, Doubleday, £18.99

The 37th Discworld novel finds the wizards of Unseen University facing an unthinkable calamity – swingeing cuts in their food budget. It turns out that the bequest which meets 87.4% of the wizards' ginormous food bill – all that cheese, all those pies – requires them to take part in a game of foot-the-ball, the violent and basically goal-less street sport beloved by the common folk of Ankh-Morpork.

It is up to the ever-diligent Ponder Stibbons to develop the shoving and gouging of old-school foot-the-ball into a game fit for wizards. He introduces the offside rule, goalkeepers, pointy hats for goalposts, a whistle for the referee instead of a poisoned dagger, and a ball that goes "gloing" rather than "clunk".

As for the coaching, that becomes the responsibility of Mr Nutt, a lowly apprentice down in the vats who looks a bit like a goblin, talks like Jeeves and shows the sort of appreciation of the aesthetics and philosophy of the game that makes Arsene Wenger sound like a saloon-bar dullard.

Meanwhile, below stairs in the Night Kitchen, home of the magnificent pies with the pickled onions in the crust, romance is blossoming. First to fall under Cupid's spell are Trev Likely, son of the legendary foot-the-baller Dave Likely, and the gorgeous but dim kitchen skivvy Juliet Stollop, who is about to become famous as a model for goblins' micromail (very strong, no chafing). Then it's the turn of Juliet's boss, the not-so-comely Glenda Sugarbean, to find love, not just in the bodice-ripping fiction of Iradne Comb-Buttworthy but in her own life and the unlikely shape of Mr Nutt.

There are, however, problems. Trev and Juliet belong to hostile footballing clans – he to Dimwell Old Pals, she to Dolly Sisters FC – and Glenda and Mr Nutt face the small difficulty that he is in fact an orc, a honed killing machine created by the Evil Emperor.

As for the prospects of the Unseen University's new football team, well, these don't look too good. The wizards can't tear themselves away from the cheeseboard long enough to learn the game's basics, they've been forbidden from using magic during the match, and their opponents are Ankh-Morpork United, "the toughest, nastiest bunch of buggers outside of the Tanty".

There has, however, been encouraging progress with the strip – the original large UU letters on the front having been scrapped because they looked like a bosom - and the chants: Professor Ritornello's plainchant composition ("Hail the unique qualities of Magister Bengo Macarona! Of Macarona the unique qualities Hail!") having been replaced by the more straightforward "One Professor Macarona, there's only one Professor Macarona", although with his academic honours and qualifications appended at his own insistence so that one verse takes up a page.

The secret of Terry Pratchett's comic  fantasy isn't so much the wackiness of the fantasy as the reliability of the comedy. The very least you get in any of these 400 pages is amiable, agreeable chuntering, and there is an instructively regular provision of terrific lines: the atmosphere in the Uncommon Room is "as cold as meltwater", Archchancellor Ridcully is astonished at noticing the intelligence in a servant's expression and thinks that "it was as if a chicken had winked", a lingering kiss from the luscious Juliet sounds like "a tennis ball being sucked through the strings of a racket".

There's equally effective quality control of the comic riffs – as when Stibbons replies with exhaustive honesty when Ridcully asks what the wizards need to learn about football – and of the jokes, such as Dr Hix's evil plan "to spread darkness and despondency throughout the world by the means of amateur dramatics", or the second verse of the Ankh-Morpork national anthem, which consists mainly of ner-ner-ners interspersed with occasional coherent words, because that's all anyone would remember of a second verse.  

Thirty-seven books in and with sales now topping 60m, Discworld is still going strong. That would be remarkable enough, were its author not also now writing against the loudly ticking clock of his Alzheimer's diagnosis last year – and doing so with undimmed, triumphant exuberance. 

Harry Ritchie's The Third Party is published by Hodder.

Harry Ritchie

The GuardianTramp

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