Sunday 14 February 2010

Unseen Academicals and Monstrous Regiment, Terry Pratchett

Having no interest in football, and the Wizards subseries of the Discworld books not being one of my favourites, I managed not to read Pratchett's latest novel, Unseen Academicals until this week. Coincidentally, it happened to be the weekend of the Saints v Pompey (Southampton versus Portsmouth football clubs) match. It was quite eerie to be reading about how (I paraphrase) it is easier to hate the football teams closest in proximity than those based further away, while the radio news reported the numbers of police in force - some on horseback! - at the game to try to prevent violence! It was easy to get muddled between reality and the book at that point.

I needn't have worried about this book, however. You don't need to be in on the joke or have football expertise to appreciate Pratchett's commentary, although perhaps it helps if you are aware of the football culture in England. Pratchett cleverly wove Romeo and Juliet into the context of professional football context, with Romeo (or Trev Likely) as a reluctant footballer, son of a footballing legend and Juliet as beautiful-but-fick WAG (an acronym I personally hate in the singular but struggled to construct the sentence in a way to make it work as it should be used, in plural) who goes into modelling. I was surprised to find myself warming to Juliet and Trev. I live in a culture where footballers and their wives/girlfriends are at once idolised and savaged, that it was refreshing to find them shown as, if there is such a thing, well-rounded stereotypes.

Being a bit of a Vetinari fangirl, I was pleased to see plenty of Ankh-Morpork's Tyrant, pulling the strings of everything that went on in the novel, as he does so well. It was also good to see Glenda, head of the Night Kitchen at the Unseen University, standing up to him, and barging into the Oblong Office without so much as an invitation. (But she had a pie.)

In Unseen Academicals Pratchett reveals hitherto unrecognised (by me, at least, to this extent) powers in touching not only the funny-bone but the heart. This is thanks to the character of Nutt. Nutt is (possibly) a goblin, from Uberwald, very polite (if stilted and not always quite sure of the right things to say) seeking to earn "worth." Someone who begins as a rather comic character develops into something deeper. His inner battles are heart-rending and, again, evoke sympathy for a character you wouldn't expect.

Before Unseen Academicals, I read The Monstrous Regiment, a Discworld novel that other people dismissed as "not being up to Pterry's usual standard." Trusting their opinions, I had never got around to reading that one, but when I did, it turned out to be not at all what I was expecting. Somehow I found it very powerful, and I find myself, a few days on, stopping and musing on the book in a deeper way than I expect from a Discworld novel. Thinking deeply about what, I'm not entirely sure. Monstrous Regiment has been accused of being not-too-subtle propaganda against war, or something like, but that wasn't what I took out of it. While reading it, I laughed aloud a lot, as each member of the regiment disclosed a secret, and when the officer, Lieutenant Blouse, declares that he is the only one who can be convincing as a woman.

But the more powerful parts of the book, for me, came in the back stories of some of the soldiers in the Regiment, of which we are given just enough information to make it feel a lot darker than Pratchett's usual style. In Doctor Who, the most shocking and powerful stories are the ones where the aliens are incidental and that the humans are the monsters. Some of the soldiers are running to find something, or someone, while others are running away. And it is not from vampires, or assassins, or such villains that they are running, but the Working School, a place of horror that is darker than the usual monsters of fantasy due to its containing none. The characters are eccentric and amusing, but they are damaged, damaged by other human beings, and that is what remains after the book is finished and the covers are closed.


  1. Y'know, although I do maintain that Monstrous Regiment is one of Pratchett's weaker books, it's still a cracking read and Pterry should never be underestimated.

    I agree with your verdict on Unseen Academicals, I hugely enjoyed it despite caring less than nothing about football. It was nice to be back in Ankh Morpork again, and (for the first time in quite a few books now) I felt that I cared as much for the new characters as I ever did for the regulars. Except possibly Vimes.

    Have you read Nation yet? I'd love to hear what you think of it, as I think it's the strongest thing he's written in years!

  2. No, I haven't read Nation yet, but I bought it for Dad for Christmas so I'm sure I will before long.


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