For someone who claims to read very little fantasy, this summer was quite a fantasy fest for me. To be fair, I do like a bit of Discworld. It was introduced to me by my son who became a fan while still in primary school. This was a loan from him.
This particular Discworld story centres on the wizards of the Unseen University who find themselves in something of a financial predicament that leaves them with two choices – either take part in a brutal Ankh-Morpork football tournament or tighten their belts. Being particularly fond of their bellies, the wizards go for the least distasteful option and pull together a motley team to take part in a momentous match. All this without the use of magic. The chancellor is keen to win but, since their opponents have been infiltrated by vengeful football hooligans, they’ll be lucky to get out of it alive.
Of course, this being Discworld, there is always a sub-plot or two on the go and there are always underdogs waiting to become unwitting heroes. In Unseen Academicals these come in the guise of four young people. There’s the mysterious candle dribbler, Mr Nutt who must come to terms with the reality of his personal history and, at the same time, turn the ramshackle band of wizards into something resembling a football team.
Mr Nutt’s colleague and best friend, Trev Likely is a street urchin trying to better himself while definitely not playing the sport that killed his father, the most famous of all of Ankh-Morpork’s footballers. Trev falls for Juliet Stollop, a beautiful but dim kitchen assistant who becomes a famous fashion model. Juliet loves him too but there’s a problem. Trev supports the Dimmers while Juliet’s dad and brothers support their arch enemies the Dollies.
Juliet works in the university’s kitchen, with her best friend and substitute mum, Glenda Sugarbean, a maker of outstanding pies and an all-round sensible person with a secret love of trashy romantic novels. When Mr Nutt meets the homely Glenda, an unlikely romance ensues.
I adored Glenda. For me, she’s the true hero of this caper. Despite it being a fantasy, when the story’s told from her point of view it becomes much closer to a genuine human experience. Like most people, she’s a bundle of conflicts. She’s street smart, yet naïve. Hardened, yet maternal. It’s Glenda who explains to the wizards that football is more than just a game. She saves the day at every turn, whether rescuing the Academicals from defeat with a brilliant idea or showing Mr Nutt the way to personal acceptance. At the same time, she conquers her own personal fears and grows in confidence and stature, even gaining the respect of Lord Vetinari himself.
A sweet, funny story from the much-missed Terry Pratchett that even features a walk on appearance from one of my favourite Discworld character Sam Vimes. What’s not to like?