Thursday, October 8, 2009

The new Discworld novel, "Unseen Academicals"

I've just finished Terry Pratchett's latest Discworld book, Unseen Academicals, and as usual, found myself wishing that he was one of those authors who wrote 900-page behemoths each time. At a mere 400 pages, it certainly ended too soon.

Obviously I enjoyed it, although I've never met a Discworld book I didn't like. While I don't think it had the gut-grabbing emotion of, say Night Watch (still one of my all time favorites, by Pratchett or anyone), it was a good, thoughtful, book.

As the Discworld series has matured, the stories have had less gag-oriented, laugh-out-loud humor, and a lot more subtlety. The comedy, and the pathos, of the stories has come increasingly from seeing how the Disc parallels our own world. In short Pratchett discusses what our world is by using the Discworld to show us what it isn't.

Unseen Academicals, at least superficially, is about Football (soccer-ish football), but is also about sport in general, crowd psychology, class war and, in no small part, getting older. It centers around a handful of new characters, mostly all young "below stairs" employees of the mighty Unseen University, but also gives some new perspective on a few established characters.

For one, this book uses the viewpoint of Archchancellor Ridcully to a greater degree than anything since Lords and Ladies. It's a surprisingly lucid and observant perspective. Also, we get to see the Patrician (or, as he's recently been officially titled, Tyrant) Havelock Vetinari, act a bit more human (and slightly inebriated, at some point), which is interesting in and of itself. Vetinari has always been a good character, and an admirable one (to whom The Prince would have been a grade-school primer), but not always a very sympathetic one.

Along the way there is a lot about what it means to be human (even if you aren't, technically so), cultural identity and the very, very good metaphor of the Crab Bucket (I won't spoil it for you). It's a good read, and while I can't say it's my favorite of the series, it's a worthy addition to the bookshelf.