Also in this series:
- The Truth (2000)
- Thief of Time (2001)
- The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents (2001)
- Night Watch (2002)
- The Wee Free Men (2003)
Reading the Discworld series in sequence, you might notice Terry Pratchett’s sense of humour changing over the years. Where the first dozen novels relied more on clever word play, his later novels found their humour in satirical situations. That element of satire became sharper too – more mocking, more serious in its intentions. When we get to Monstrous Regiment, we get to perhaps his sharpest, most biting novel in the series.
It tells the story of Polly Perks, a girl who dresses up as a boy to enter the military, in search of her older brother. We are in Borogravia, a location not visited before in the series, and a very warlike and religious country. The country follows the Book of Nuggan, which is actually more like a heavy binder that lists all the things that are considered Abominations unto Nuggan, such as chocolate, and the colour blue. The country also suffers from too much patriotism. You can’t be the greatest country in the world without having enemies, after all. And even when Borogravia is losing, it is winning. Make of this characterization what you will.
As Polly enters the army, we start out all Full Metal Jacket style and she enters a company consisting of course of a vampire, a troll, an Igor and so on. A “monstrous” regiment. But Pratchett references with this title an actual, sexist pamphlet from 1558 by one John Knox that raved against government by women. It doesn’t take long before we discover that all human members of her company are actually women in disguise.
The last years I’ve become rather tired of politics entering entertainment – not because I am against the underlying sentiments, but because films and books are being praised for being great for having political messages that have very little to do with the actual themes or qualities of plot and characterization in these works. Only in a few instances, such as Kameron Hurley’s The Stars Are Legion (2016), did I feel that the gender identity issues it took up were a natural, holistic part of the universe she created and the story she wanted to tell. It made sense for such themes to be present in that novel, just as it makes sense for themes about war to be present in military fiction.
For Terry Pratchett, I also make an exception, because his mocking satire is intelligent and piercing, and the issues of sexism and patriotism he takes up also happen to be the central theme of the novel. It makes sense for them to be there. Sometimes he goes down the road of “women are better and men are stupid”, which I find tiresome and unconstructive, but then turns it around in later pages. Besides, Pratchett wrote interesting female characters long before today’s focus on it.
So, we meet a whole roster of new characters, and at first the group feels like a version of Sam Vimes’ city watch. The military regiment has the same diversity of fantasy characters – the troll, the vampire, the igor – and sergeant Jackrum is the guy with the “street smarts”. The characters really started working for me around the halfway point. Maladict the vampire has an addiction to coffee (something I personally relate to) and withdrawal turns him into a Vietnam soldier from apocalypse now. Jackrum the sarge is a lot meaner than Vimes, but a lot of fun to read about. Only Polly herself feels a bit flat.
Many of the jokes write themselves by this time, especially with the fantasy characters, but Pratchett never went so grim with the characters’ backgrounds. The female soldiers found themselves in the army running from restrictions and abuse. Looking back at earlier novels of Pratchett, like Equal Rites (1987), where women’s rights featured as well but the story was much lighter, and then looking at later novels like Night Watch (2002) which also went dark with the grittiness of revolutions, then a picture forms of Pratchett becoming angrier and having more to get off his chest.
I wish Pratchett was less insistent at times at how everything has its gritty downsides. What I am missing here is a character like Granny Weatherwax (perhaps Pratchett’s finest creation): someone who is confronted with the stupidity of the world all the time but uses head-ology to outwit everyone by strength of character. She, however, has been transported to Pratchett’s Young Adult novels as a role model. I wish that that optimistic role model idea and lighter storytelling of the YA novels had remained integrated with the grittiness of Night Watch and Monstrous Regiment.
Overall, I thought this was just an ok novel, and Pratchett’s writing is always smooth. The crossdressing jokes wore thin after a while, though, but the characters were a lot of fun. It went on for far too long, however, and has about 10 endings. I skipped the final 50 pages. Sorry, Terry.