While Iris Murdoch's last novel is studied for what it reveals about the effects of Alzheimer's, no such diagnosis could ever be drawn from this latest rollicking fantasy by Sir Terry Pratchett, who bravely outed himself last year as suffering from the early stages of this dread illness. His writing remains as spry as ever, with the humour coming thick and fast in every paragraph. This hectic rate of waggery can only succeed if the jokes are really good, and once again they are. Satire, parody and inspired wordplay all jostle for space as Pratchett casts his keen comic eye on the Unseen University of Ankh-Morpork, inhabited by ancient wizards straight out of an amalgam of Gormenghast and Tom Sharpe's version of Cambridge.
Unseen Academicals is Pratchett's 37th novel in his Discworld series, and all the old favourites make an appearance. The university librarian, turned by mistake into an orang-utan, cowardly Wizzard Rincewind with his shaky spelling, assorted trolls, dwarfs and even Death himself all play their part, along with equally entertaining human characters. There is Juliet, a dumb kitchen assistant destined for a career as a supermodel, Glenda, a compulsive organiser with a kindly heart, and enigmatic Nutt, a highly educated goblin about whom little is known, even by the character himself.
As before, this crew is presided over by the kindly Lord Vetinari, who insists that the university wizards must play one game of foot-the-ball in order to retain their ancient privileges. This brand of the sport is little more than a vicious form of street fighting, dividing the town into hostile camps. But when Trevor Likely, from one side, falls for Juliet on the other, there is never any doubt that they will finally get together.
Greater claims can be made for Pratchett's work other than that it is unfailingly good fun. Magic realism does not have to be solemn. In his hands, it comes over as a sharply satirical take on many current realities from an author seemingly incapable of penning a bad joke.