The wonderful Terry Pratchett returns to the world of Unseen University and the faculty wizards in Unseen Academicals. However, as with many books focused on the wizards, a secondary plot that might almost be the main one involves some never-before-seen characters. It's not quite up to the standards of the best by Pratchett all in all, but it's very good just the same.
To keep the money flowing from a fund thatís been used for many years to finance the university, the Unseen University is supposed to field a regular annual "foot-the-ball" team and play against the other guilds in the city of Ankh-Morpork. Since these wizards consider eating the most strenuous sport they'll ever play, this could become a problem. Foot-the-ball has been going on in an unorganized fashion for many years, resulting in much violence and mayhem, and Lord Vetinari (Ankh Morpork's benevolent tyrant) has decided to organize a game to bring the rabble under control. Meanwhile, behind the scenes at the university, other weirdness is occurring as Trev, son of an ex-player who died on the streets, has fallen for Juliet the maid, who is friends with Glenda, the night cook who specializes in pies. Glenda, meanwhile, has befriended Mr. Nutt, a creature sheltered by the university who doesn't know anything about his own history. When all the secrets come boiling to the surface, some people could lose their heads!
I enjoyed Unseen Academicals, though it isn't as gripping as Pratchett's books are in the main. The jokes are there, even more so than in recent books, but as in most of Pratchett's books featuring the wizards of Unseen University, the other storyline is much more interesting and solid. It seems that Pratchett feels (and I quite agree) that he can't really write a socially relevant book that is completely about the wizards - they are far too buffoonish for that. Interesting points can be made through them, but not enough to sustain a whole novel.
Which is why I have to say I loved the other storyline. The four-pronged semi-romance is quite touching in its own way, but it also shows us that you can find the good in people if you really want to; all you have to do is look. Mr. Nutt's mystery is intriguing (I won't spoil it here), as a man (or creature, I guess) searching for his own self-worth. He shows off talents that consistently surprise those around him, though Nutt cowers from the limelight that those successes bring him. He must not stand out, must be part of the crowd. While these "rules" from his sophisticated mistress (in the "master" sense, not the "cheating on a spouse" sense) about how to operate in society seem to be meant to protect him, they also serve to hide what he is.
Glenda sees the true worth hiding beneath Nutt's exterior. Trev, the boy from the streets who is seriously rough around the edges but has a major crush on Juliet, who doesn't have two brain cells to rub together but is quite beautiful, very sweet, and protected by Glenda from stepping into any bad situationsÖ well, you can see there's a lot going on there. Glenda also learns about letting go and that people cannot grow to their vast potential when they are being protectively smothered.
Nutt is the glue that ties both stories together, since Ridcully (head of Unseen University) and Lord Vetinari know Nutt's secret and why he is being sheltered at the university. The wizards enlist Nutt's heightened intelligence and training when they must form a soccer team against a rival university. Vetinari is determined to make the game a sport again instead of an excuse for random hooliganism and tribalism on the streets.
Both surprising and pleasing to see is that Pratchett ends up giving Ridcully a bit of a third dimension in Unseen Academicals, with him getting introspective about Nutt and about his relationship with Vetinari. It does seem to jar with his public persona a bit, however. There are scenes where he acts as apparently clueless as the other wizards, and it doesn't seem to be an act put on for the rest of the faculty. Stibbons remains the put-upon faculty member, the only one who demonstrates much actual intelligence. Whenever a new job comes up that needs to be dealt with, the wizards always drop it on him, and his reactions are quite amusing.
The book brims with jokes, especially where the wizards are involved but also in the other storyline. Vetinari is as usual priceless, even more so when he seems to have met his match in the manipulation department. The final game that concludes the book is a laugh riot, though, making me race to the end after having slogged through the first half. Thatís not the book's fault but my own problem, and I only include it to show how gripping the last half actually is. I was having trouble keeping quiet as the Librarian (who, as most Discworld fans know, was turned into an ape in a magical accident) plays goal.
Unseen Academicals is not one of Pratchett's best books, but it is more of the usual Pratchett magic. He mixes plenty of jokes in with the social commentary, and the commentary itself is quite sharp and incisive. Yet Pratchett doesn't let that overwhelm just how funny the tale can be. And - best yet - the hilarious footnotes are back! How can you go wrong?