Book review: Unseen Academicals, Terry Pratchett

Unseen AcademicalsThe other week I had a work-related Christmas dinner (great food, great company), and my team played one of those corporate-style getting-to-know-you games wherein we each had to name a person we’d love to have dinner with.

I nominated Terry Pratchett.

I read a lot as a kid and a teenager, but Pterry’s Discworld books were the first novels I was super-invested in. Between the ages of 13 and 16 I reckon I devoured each entry in the series at least five times – there were more than 20 Discworld novels in those days (there’s now 37), so that’s a lot of reading.

Pratchett probably had more influence on my writing and my worldview than any other writer. So it’s through this lens of adoration that I read the newest entry in the Discworld series, Unseen Academicals.

First up: even a bad Discworld book would still be a good book. Academicals (synopsis here) is not a bad Discworld book. But nor is it the greatest. The development-of-football plot didn’t feel as fleshed out as other Discworld spoofs (particularly coming so soon after Going Postal and Making Money), the plot lacked a clear drive towards something, and the new characters often felt like retreads of characters that Pterry has done better in the past – while I liked Glenda, Nutt, Trev and Juliet, I don’t really care about any of them.

That said, there are some great moments: pretty much anything about the Librarian, Ponder Stibbons and Ridcully, whose rivalry with former Dean provided some of Academicals‘ high points. Pratchett introduces fun new supporting characters (Pepe, Dr Hix) in amongst the old faces (Rincewind), though other Discworld fixtures seemed way off (Vetinari, who seemed oddly un-Vetinari in many of his scenes).

Perhaps this sounds harsh. But I really did enjoy Unseen Academicals (what can I say? I’m a Pterry fanboy). I wouldn’t recommend it to a Discworld n00b, but it’s nevertheless a solid entry in this fantastic (in every sense of the word) series. And it also has a touch of finality: because of Pratchett’s Alzheimer’s disease, Academicals could be one of the last adult Discworld novels. Which is a very sad prospect.