Terry Pratchett,
Unseen Academicals
(HarperCollins, 2009)

Unseen Academicals is a story about rules, goals and choosing sides, about learning how to work as one of a group and learning how to work as one of a kind, about leaving a legacy, overcoming the past, and about war, peace and the strange space in between the two.

Which is to say, it's about a game. An actual game loved on the streets of Ankh-Morpork, played with a ball and a goalkeeper and a referee to blow the whistle when things get out of hand. But if you think that means it's the standard sports story then you've obviously never read a Discworld story before. Oh, the plot is simple -- if you only want one plot.

The resurgence of a popular game, Foot-The-Ball, has forced the involvement of the leaders of Ankh-Morpork to prevent weekly street riots. A couple fans from opposing teams find themselves in love, much to the violent disapproval of their households -- er, friends. A monster is loose in the city, and the only clue is a quiet newcomer from the mountains who seems to know more than he or anyone else should.

The game itself should be simple, but with teams are made up of wizards, great apes and candlemakers, and the slightly supernatural Cup they're playing for, it's the most complicated and complicating event in the city. This is a game where both teams manage to be underdogs, where the winning goal may or may not depend on the skills of a piemaker, and the whole thing starts in a museum. It may or may not be related to certain fantastic atrocities, depending on the point of view. These plots alone might be simple, but together they weave together, colliding, obstructing and ultimately working together to the last minute.

Unseen Academicals is a grand entry in the Discworld series. The cast feels like a cast -- people real enough to smell and get nervous around. Pratchett is as keen as ever in his social commentary and satire, and even the puns are pretty good -- for puns. But it's not the easiest starting point for new readers. Anyone who's ever met a fantasy novel will recognize Ankh-Morpork, the Guild-owned, tyrant-operated fantasy city brimming with trolls, vampires and every other sort of oddity familiar to swords-and-sorcery genre. Those who don't already know that it's also full of lawyers, sewage workers, traffic cops and meat pies might be a little lost.

But anyone willing to get a little lost and let the game carry them along will have a grand time.

review by
Sarah Meador

13 March 2010

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