Terry Pratchett’s Unseen Academicals is a rollicking good ride. Ostensibly the book is about soccer and since it is only Americans who call the game soccer and Pratchett is British, it is about football. Except in Discworld football isn’t played in the moderately civilized way it is played now. There is no pitch per se, the streets of the city serve for that, and there really are no rules per se. The game ends when everyone gets tired or all the players are wounded, whichever comes first. The crowd is also an element of the game; shoving this way and that, competing sides try to configure the field of play in their team’s favor. Rarely is a goal ever scored.
It just so happens, however, that as the wizards at Unseen University discover that an annuity left by a former wizard depends on their playing football or cutting their food budget and making due with three cheeses on the cheeseboard instead of the standard 86, at the same time Lord Vetinari, the city’s ruling tyrant, decides he wants to place some limits on the game and the way it is played because he is tired of the loss of life and damage to property complaints. Conveniently, an ancient vase is discovered in the museum that clearly shows a game of football being played. Vetinari gives the re-creating of the game into the hands of the wizards who meld new rules with old rules.
Football is the frame upon which the story is built. But the real story is about whether “a leopard can change his shorts,” and
‘Of course, all he’s saying is you’ve got to do your best,’ said the driver. ‘And the more best you’re capable of, the more you should do. That’s it really.’
And so we have a book in which the various main characters make all sorts of discoveries about themselves and have the choice to do their best or muck it all up. That makes it sound like it is a syrupy and moralistic book and while there are moments that verge on the sweet, it is mostly just plain fun. There are jokes on every page and in spite of the humor, the book still manages to be filled with tension and suspense.
If you have never read a Discworld book you can certainly jump into this one without a problem. If you have read a Discworld book, you will recognize many of your favorite characters and be delighted by some new ones. Of course the Librarian is in this one (he is a wizard who got turned into an Orangutan and likes it so much he never let anyone change him back) and he plays goalie for the Unseen Academicals. While I haven’t read all the Discworld books, I still think it is safe to say that this one ranks up there among the best ones.