Pratchett's "Unseen Academicals" – a gift to Discworld lovers and an argument for the importance of sport

I always celebrate when a new Terry Pratchett novel hits the stands — doubly so now that health problems are slowing him down from his normal superhuman output to a merely impressive one. But I confess I was a little less excited to learn that the newest Pratchett Discworld book, Unseen Academicals, was about football (AKA soccer). I'm not a sports fan. I wasn't a hockey fan when I lived in Canada. I wasn't a baseball fan when I lived in the US. I'm not a footie fan now that I live in the UK. But I gave it a whirl: this is Terry Pratchett, after all. I'd read his grocery lists.

A word about Pratchett for the uninitiated. Terry Pratchett is an incredibly funny, warmly human British fantasy (mostly) novelist. He writes at an impossible rate. Most of his books are part of a sprawling, infinitely varied fantasy series called Discworld, about a flat, disc-shaped planet that is carried on the backs of four gigantic elephants who tramp in slow circles around the back of a vast, interstellar turtle called A'Tuin. On Discworld, everything happens. There are imperial battles and barbarians; witches and trolls and dwarves in the hills; animist spirits on lost continents; and there is a vast and wonderful and terrible city called Ankh-Morpork. Ankh-Morpork is presided over by a tyrant called Lord Vetinari, who is quite progressive as tyrants go. For one thing, he's let the trolls, vampires, medusae, dwarves, werewolves, zombies, and assorted other nonhumans into the city. For another, he's organized the thieves into a guild to whom one can pay an annual license and be guaranteed a life free from official thieving (freelance thieves are dealt with most firmly by the guild).

You can read the Discworld books in almost any order. Some of them run in little trilogies that follow the same characters, but even if you picked up the second or third volume of these, you'd probably get along OK — Pratchett is quite good at getting newcomers to Discworld up to speed on its basics.

Back to Unseen Academicals. Here's the setup: the wizards of Unseen University have discovered that a key grant from a former Archchancellor requires them to keep a football team that plays regular matches. It's been decades since the last UU team was fielded, and they're in imminent danger of losing a substantial source of funding. Meanwhile, football itself — as played on the streets of Ankh-Morpork — is a vicious game that is more riot than sport, and the wizards of UU have no intention of getting involved in that mess.

So they cook up a plan to reform football — and to field a team of their own, coached by Nutt, a mysterious (and erudite) goblin who has been heretofore employed as a candle-dribbler (no self-respecting wizard wants to do magic by the light of a pristine, unmarked candle) in the cellars of UU.

That's the setup. Here's the payoff: it's brilliant. The novelist's best trick is to make you care about stuff you don't care about. It's what Fever Pitch does. And it's what Unseen Academicals does, too. Pratchett shows us how sport is part of the emotional life of a city, and how its significance resonates across generations, across regional parochialism, across social strata, uniting us behind something that transcends the mere game.

What's more, Pratchett shows us how fragile a thing this is, how vulnerable it is to greed and thuggishness and venality, and how those who defend the game do so for the best reasons imaginable. As Pratchett says, "The thing about football is, it's not about football."

I wouldn't call this the best Discworld novel ever (I think my vote for that honor would go to Monstrous Regiment, which, incidentally, can be read without having read any of the other Pratchett novels). But it's in the top five.

A word of warning: it's also one of the most inside-baseball (you should forgive the expression) of the Discworld books, requiring a fair bit of familiarity with the previous books in the series to be fully appreciated. It's a real gift from Pratchett to his fans, in other words, and I, for one, am grateful for it.

Unseen Academicals (Amazon US)

Unseen Academicals (Amazon UK)