Green Review: Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett (Doubleday)


Book Info

Title: Unseen Academicals
Author: Terry Pratchett
Pages: 400
Genre: Comic Fantasy
Standalone/Series: Standalone but book 37 of the Discworld
Release: Out Now in Hardback
Publisher: Doubleday



Terry Pratchett reinvents football from a bloody and violent common activity into something that the Wizards of the Unseen University can play.

At the same time Mr Nutt is working as a Candle Knave in the University but his friend and boss Trev knows he is unlike anyone who makes their home in the vats. Then we have the night kitchen run by Glenda. Her friend Juliet who has the potential to be a star but Glenda doesn’t think that she leaving the kitchen for stardom is such a good idea.

All these people are linked and together and they are going to change football. But remember the most important thing about football is… it’s not just about football.


This is a book for two halves. On the one side you have this big football match that the Wizards are persuaded (through the thought of hungry mostly) into organising and making civilised and on the other you have the story of those people that work below in the kitchens and the vats and their role in the reinvention of football.

It is a strange mix and it might come across as slightly weird. And it is. I am not a football fan in the slightest but I enjoyed the exploration that Pratchett makes of the game that is played on the streets usually with not ball insight which seems to be nothing more than an excuse to declare tribal war. The mystery around Nutt who’s actions and skills mark him apart form those he works with.

The theme that strikes me is best illustrated more a series of questions: Can you change the nature of things? And if so how far can you go before their true nature reasserts itself? And does it matter?

If you fundamentally change something like the game of football are people going to accept and go along with it? Pratchett gives the Wizards an impossible task but he also gives them a way of dealing with it and changing it. It’s all politics, which the wizards through their years of subtle backstabbing have adapted to quite well.

But the main and the second half of the story surrounds Mr Nutt, his friend Trev and Glenda and Juliet. Pratchett holds a mirror up to each and challenges their own thinking of themselves and pushes them to see if they can overcome their own locked-in view of themselves.

And that’s what I ended up reading Unseen Academicals for. Not the amusing and fun thread with the wizards though it adds a lot of parallels to the developing story of these four people.

I was really rooting for Nutt. One of the strengths of Pratchett and his writing is seeing humanity and stripping it and twisting it and looking at it funny until you end up seeing a completely different side to it. It’s easier if he’s using non human characters like Dwarfs, Trolls etc.

But he does as well, if not better, with characters like Glenda, who gets to understand herself a whole lot better when she tries to ‘help’ Juliet.

The final match though does have the magic of the game – there is laughter, tears and blood.


Unseen Academicals made it into my top ten reads of 2009 so you’ll guess that I enjoyed it. It’s my first adult Pratchett after a several year gap and he hasn’t lost his touch. I probably needed the break to appreciate how good he can be at looking at people and how they live and using a few words to show use how to see them and their world completely differently.

It isn’t perfect. There does feel a slight mismatch between the two stories. I guess it would be nice to have a whole Wizards story but I think Rincewind has had a plenty of adventures by now. And I don’t know who could take his place.

One really odd thing is that there is a couple of occasions where characters seem to be pop up talking to characters with no indication that they’ve appeared or are going to start talking. That was slightly jarring.

But apart from that I was rooting for the main characters and shouting for the Unseen University team to win.

I hope you do to.

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