July 13, 2024

Gabbing Geek

Your online community for all things geeky.

Discworld Read-Along #37: Unseen Academicals


Continuing my increasingly occasional series as I make my way through the late Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, one novel at a time.

Today’s entry is the 37th book, Unseen Academicals.

First appearances: the various misfits that make up the Unseen Academicals football team (that’s soccer to the Americans like myself)

Introduced to Discworld:  educated orcs, organized sports

Plot:  The wizards of Unseen University are following through on their various traditions.  Recently named Master of Tradition Ponder Stibbons is making sure the wizards do, well, everything listed as a tradition.  Ponder by this point is basically the only wizard who actually does much of anything.  Even Archchancellor Ridcully is surprised to find how many positions Ponder holds around the University.  But Ridcully is mad at his former Dean, who left the University to take the exact same title Ridcully holds at another city-state’s wizard college.

It seems that there is an old tradition that states that every so many years, the University must field and play a game of foot-the-ball.  The consequences to not following through are the loss of a stipend that would affect the wizards’ food budget.  As the wizards eat nearly nonstop, eight meals a day at the least, that is unacceptable.  How can anyone get by on only three meals a day?

That said, the real stars of this book are the folks who work behind the scenes.  Wizards can’t use new candles, so they have individuals whose job it is to produce pre-dribbled candles.  Among those people are Trev Likely, son of the late legendary footballer Dave Likely; Night Kitchen manager and head cook Glenda Sugarbean, maker of fantastic pies; Juliet, a dumb but beautiful assistant cook; and Mister Nutt, who at first says he is a goblin.  As far as Mister Nutt knows, he is a goblin.  Nutt has some fantastic skills and is highly educated thanks to a distant lady that turns out to be Lady Margolatta of Uberwald, the vampire who started the temperance league.

Oh yeah, and it turns out Nutt isn’t a goblin.  He’s an orc.  The first anyone has seen in years.  Orcs have a reputation for twisting people’s heads off.

But with the wizards getting involved, along with some kind of religion, past laws to tame the wild game of foot-the-ball into something sporting is happening.  The wizards need to win to keep Lord Vetinari in power (possibly, it’s complicated), but the city’s Shove, the roughians, have their own agendas.  And they don’t play by the rules…

Commentary:  I know I’ve fallen way behind on these.  I’ve been busy with a lot of different things of late, but in reality, I had a hard time getting through this one.  It isn’t bad, per se, but Pratchett at this point was far past his prime.  I don’t recall off-hand if Pratchett had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s yet by this point, but the book itself seemed to lack something.

It could be that despite this being a wizard book, the real stars aren’t the wizards.  Some lists have it down as a Rincewind book, but Rincewind is only a minor supporting character, on the team in part because he’s a very good runner.  The Luggage barely appears at all aside from a quick cameo.  The real stars are Nutt, Glenda, Juliet, and Trev.  And, quite frankly, given there are only four books left, two of which are Tiffany Aching books, it’s hard to get really invested in characters I am pretty sure will not be appearing again.

And somehow, a side plot involving Juliet becoming a fashion model means along side the organized sports stuff there was also high fashion culture being satirized.  It makes for a more disjointed work than most, and I could have done without maybe-dwarf Pepe.

Least interesting may have been the idea that orcs are people too.  Pratchett has covered this ground many times, most notably in the Watch novels.  Indeed, Archchancelor Ridcully and Lord Vetinari are both well aware of what Nutt is.  Rereading this book, I knew the secret so it wasn’t as surprising, but I can’t say that the retread of familiar ground was all that welcome.  Nutt’s growing relationship with Glenda, as well as Trev’s eventual arrival on the field despite the promise he made to his ol’ mum, well, I knew it was coming and I wasn’t the slightest bit surprised.

That’s not to say that there wasn’t anything worth reading.  Ridcully’s anger over the former Dean’s departure is something to see.  The ex-Dean (real name Henry) is fancying himself an Archchancelor of his own, much-better, more modern-thinking university.  Ponder, meanwhile, is growing increasingly frustrated at the lack of recognition he gets, allowing him to lash out here and there when he can.

But by and large, the book didn’t do much for me.  Of the remaining four books, I’ve only read one more before, so we’ll see how that all works out.  I will finish this project.

NEXT BOOK:  It’s back to the Chalk, for another Tiffany Aching adventure.  Something is causing distrust of witches, and that can’t be good.  Will Tiffany find the source before it’s too late?  Be back soon for I Shall Wear Midnight.

Previous entries:

The Color of Magic

The Light Fantastic

Equal Rites



Wyrd Sisters


Guards! Guards!


Moving Pictures

Reaper Man

Witches Abroad

Small Gods

Lords and Ladies

Men at Arms

Soul Music

Interesting Times


Feet of Clay



The Last Continent

Carpe Jugulum

The Fifth Elephant

The Truth

Thief of Time

The Last Hero

The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents

Night Watch

The Wee Free Men

Monstrous Regiment

A Hat Full Of Sky

Going Postal



Making Money