Title: Unseen Academicals
Author: Terry Pratchett
I do like a good Discworld. Doesn’t everyone? I won’t pretend that I’ve read them in order. I buy them, indiscriminately, from charity shops and jumble sales; sometimes I find them abandoned in coffee shops and then I sit there all afternoon in a corner, dragging out the last few sips of my flat white; one or two have been presents. Pretty much whenever I encounter a Discworld novel, I buy it, provided it’s within my budget. There are very few authors for whom I have that level of loyalty. My relationship with Discworld is a funny one—I wasn’t allowed to read Terry Pratchett books growing up, because of the suspicious-looking pictures of hobgoblins on the front—and in the end, I only read Reaper Man because a friend gave me a copy and wheedled me into giving it a go. And, obviously, I loved it. I loved it so much that I even leant my very precious copy to Mum in order to help her understand why I loved it. (I am sure she is looking after it well, but I’ve made an Important Note about it in my journal and I intend to get it back). I still feel a smidge rebellious every time I read one—and I’m not a very rebellious person, so it makes a refreshing change.
That wasn’t even about Unseen Academicals, but I feel like it’s important that my feelings on the topic of the Discworld are established: I’m not coming to any of the characters in Unseen Academicals fresh, except for the few who are new and around whom the story really revolves. Although my favourite Discworld is always going to be Reaper Man (because reasons), and I like Hogfather and Thief of Time almost as much, Unseen Academicals is still a very good read. My favourite characters of the Discworld, other than Susan, are the wizards: it seems to me that the whole of Unseen University is basically just an excuse for Pratchett to make fun of Oxbridge dons (it is incredible to me that, at least according to his Wikipedia page, he’s never been to university). Now, I don’t exactly work with Oxford dons, but I am constantly surrounded by academics and professors, and some of the most surreal tangents about the wizards are unnervingly easy to believe.
That isn’t why I loved Unseen Academicals, though. The thing is, I love the way Pratchett writes women. (This is going to become a ‘women in literature’ blog really quickly and I never intended for it to be one). His women are all such individuals—from Nanny Ogg, through Agnes Nitt/Perdita X Dream, via Susan Sto Helit, and finally to Glenda and Juliet of Unseen Academicals. I’m going to deal mostly with the latter in this review. Juliet, at first glance, is a two-a-penny sort of girl—gorgeous and dim, and reasonably good at cooking; the type of girl who causes men to comically walk into lampposts in cartoons. The sort of woman who, if I encounter her on a low-self-esteem day, kind of makes me wish that I’d paid more attention to issues of Cosmopolitan when I was a teenager instead of reading Usborne Young Woodlice or similar. When we encountered Juliet, I was irritated: Juliets irritate me in real life, and right from when she was introduced I was sure that a) I would hate the book and b) I knew Juliet’s story, right from sauntering through life because of her pretty face, to ending up with the prince and never having to work again. Things are never hard for women of Juliet’s ilk and frankly I don’t want to read that kind of tale.
Really, I ought to have trusted the author more.
Juliet remains heart-stoppingly pretty throughout the novel, she remains mind-meltingly dim, and she lands a job as a successful model (dwarfish micromail; no chafing!). Yet one of the themes of the novel seemed to be that I should be thinking complexly about Juliet—that, actually, she’s still a grown woman, and she is still able to make her own choices, and she still makes a valuable and interesting contribution to the world around her. That was a challenge to my preconceptions, and I like books that do that. I have a tendency to judge gorgeous, stupid women—partly because I’m jealous that they seem to have an easy ride through life. This book caused me to re-evaluate that old prejudice. There are a great many things that wouldn’t have happened without Juliet—certainly not in the same way. She is tremendously important both to the people around her and to the wider plotline, and that was a refreshing kind of read.
Come to think of it, the same can be said of Trev Likely, whom I suppose you would describe as the prince apparent. He’s just a sort of bloke who’s quite good at football and isn’t any good at poetry, doing menial labour to pay the bills, but upon his friendship and loyalty entire plot points hinge. Pratchett’s insistence on the importance of ordinary people is part of what makes his books likeable. Trev is excellent at kicking a tin can around, but he doesn’t have any rare gifts or unusual talents. It’s the friendship and loyalty of his character, his rather reluctant bravery, around which plot points hinge. That’s important. I know very many people with an array of bewildering and rather niche skills—it’s the privilege of the PhD student—but with all of them, the things that make me want to spend time with them are the traits they choose, not the gifts they were born with. More books should celebrate character instead of personality or gifting; I believe that passionately.
There are other important characters too, but they’re slightly less ordinary. Glenda, a big, bustling, efficient sort of woman, who undoubtedly wears sensible shoes and doesn’t really hold with foreign food, is delightful—but she can be found on the pages of any Discworld novel in some guise or another, so I won’t dwell on her. She, too, has hidden depths that are drawn out beautifully throughout the narrative. Suffice to say that I loved her, and that (mild, unimportant spoilers) she gets to star in one of my all-time favourite romantic scenes. As for Mr Nutt? I’m not sure what I can say about him without giving the plot away. Think I’ll go for quoting the blurb: ‘No-one knows much about Mr Nutt, not even Mr Nutt’.
Not a 5/5 because I felt it took a while to get going, but the things I read Pratchett for—excellent character development, zany and interesting metaphor, and fantastic humour—were present in abundance. Shame there weren’t quite as many footnotes this time around, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. I wouldn’t recommend this as a first weekend visit to the Discworld—you need familiarity with the workings of Unseen University in order to get a fair number of the jokes—but it’s very much worth a read once you’ve decided to stay.