Terry Pratchett
Unseen Academicals
Harper, 2009
ISBN 978-0-06-116170-4
Reviewed by Gary McGath

Terry Pratchett's latest novel shows no decline in his writing style. It gives the impression, though, that he knew this could be his last novel, so he threw in as many ideas from his notebooks as he could. It has sports. It has a closer look at Ankh-Morpork's working classes than any of his previous novels. It has a new humanoid species. It has a Romeo and Juliet story, with a real Juliet. It has fashion modeling and a slight whiff of Cyrano de Bergerac. It has the wizards and Rincewind, though mercifully not very much of the latter. It ends four times. All this doesn't fit together quite as well as usual.

There are two major plot threads. One concerns the discovery that Unseen University has to hold a foot-the-ball game soon or lose a major bequest. The idea of doing anything athletic is foreign to the university's wizards, but they do their confused best. The other thread concerns Nutt, a goblin descended from the murderous hordes of the Evil Empire. His species is nearly extinct and his ambitions are small, but important people, including Lord Vetinari, have their eye on him, and he becomes involved in the organizing of the team.

Pratchett is addressing Tolkien's orcs, of course. In The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, goblins or orcs are the literally inhuman forces of the enemy to the east. Tolkien was in World War I and endured the death of most of his close friends. The Allies' waging of the war was backed by a particularly strong campaign to dehumanize the enemy; the German was "the Hun." Orcs stand in nicely for the Hun. All the ones we see are brutal male soldiers; there isn't the slightest hint that there are females or children or that orcs would know what to do with themselves outside a war. Pratchett raises the question of just why the goblins fought for the Evil Empire (it's the same reason any draftees fight) and shows Nutt as the target of intense prejudice.

But he drives the point home with an uncharacteristic sledgehammer. Nutt is a very gentle person who's no threat to anyone unless forced to defend himself. Both his strength and his intelligence are superhuman, and there's no indication that he's unusual for his species. If the Evil Empire's goblins were that smart and strong, it's hard to see how they could have stayed enslaved for long.

Football, at the start of the novel, is an activity played in the streets by poor people, without any clear rules and with a lot of violence. The game which the wizards hope to play is based on the old, complex rules, which haven't been used in many years. I suspect I'd understand a number of points better if I knew more about British football, but the game being described seems to be soccer (or football, as they call it over there) with some bits of rugby thrown in. They need an opposing team, and it's recruited from the street players, who include some of the worst thugs you wouldn't want to meet in the Shades. A disaster waiting to happen, you might think? And how!

There's a puzzle which someone needs to solve. On page 308, a character says to herself, "Don't start wondering about what Mary the bloody housemaid would do in one of those cheap novels you read, because Mary was made up by someone with a name suspiciously like an anagram for people like you." The name in question is Iradne Comb-Buttworthy. It has a lot of anagrams, but I haven't found one yet that's appropriate, either through my own efforts or Web searches.

In the final pages, Pratchett asks the reader three times, "You think it's all over?" before wrapping up all the plot threads and saying "It is now!" Is this, perhaps, a reluctant goodbye?

Bottom line: This is a good Pratchett novel, remarkable for the circumstances under which he wrote it, but not one of his best.

This review last revised on October 31, 2009

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