A pretty strong effort from Terry Pratchett this go-around, in part because he’s mostly left his usual formula behind in a way. Which is appropriate for what’s an interesting combination of sports novel and nontraditional hero’s journey, while still part of Pratchett’s overall continuing Discworld metastory of a fantasy-world Industrial Revolution.
Unseen Academicals has no obvious villain – sure, there’s a thuggish football goon, but he’s barely a factor for most of the story. What it is instead is philosophical – of course, all of Pratchett’s books have their philosophical moments, but Academicals is very much a meditation on what creates the mentality of crowds – what’s attractive and good about it as well as what’s repellent and bad. In this book, Vetinari is doing nothing less than attempting to change crowd psychology, if only a little bit, and what’s really clever on both his part and Pratchett’s is that he acknowledges, for the first time in the entire series, that’s he’s really taking a risk. (The book also delivers, for a brief, tantalizing moment, a small insight into what actually drives Vetinari. If that alone doesn’t make you go out and get it, then you don’t read Pratchett yet.)
On a simpler level, Pratchett’s delivering a welcome mix of known quantities and new faces. Mustrum Ridcully and Ponder Stibbons are significant POV characters for a good chunk of the book (although they’re not the main characters); Ridcully in particular comes off really well, because he’s still funny good old Ridcully who gets peeved due to a rival university popping up – but Pratchett really makes it clear in this book that Ridcully is the Boss Wizard for a number of very good reasons, both external and internal, and it’s really just cool to see Ridcully get a couple of totally badass character moments.
The new faces this go-around would be, I expect, more of the William De Worde “one novel and then into background” sort rather than a continuing protagonist like Vimes or Moist von Lipwig. To give any details about Nutt and Glenda would spoil the read, so I won’t bother: I’ll just say that the former introduces a notably missing element to the Discworld’s fantasy panoply and the latter is another of Pratchett’s favored (and entirely deserving to be so) big tough girl heroes.
And, of course, this is a book about football. Because here Pratchett is having the characters of the Discworld explicitly invent football (rather than the traditional organic formation he usually goes with), it allows him to speak through his characters about why football is great, why the rules are the rules and why it’s more than just a game but a visceral experience. And he does it with good gags.
Highly recommended. It’s not as good as Nation is, but it’s a very good Discworld novel indeed. Solid A.