Continuing my occasional series as I work my way through the late Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, one novel at a time.
Today’s entry is the 31st book, Monstrous Regiment.
First Appearance: the tiny nation of Borogravia and its brave, religious citizens
Introduced to Discworld: women in combat
Plot: A year prior, young Polly Perkins’ brother Paul joined the army to defend his nation of Borogravia from the neighboring nation of Zlobenia. The crown prince of Zlobenia is claiming the throne of Borogravia for himself, stating that he is the rightful heir to the throne after Borogravia’s ruling Duchess passed away without an heir.
Of course, the people of Borogravia haven’t acknowledged the Duchess’ death yet. That would cause problems. In point of fact, many people pray to her, since she seems more reasonable than Borogravia’s god Nuggan, who mostly sends lists of “Abominations” which are impossible to follow since the list includes things like the color blue and babies.
Seeing no other options, Polly shaves off her golden curls, puts on men’s clothes, and runs off to join the army. She signs on with an old veteran, Sergeant Jackrum, and is under the command of Lieutenant Blouse, a man who’s spent his entire military career reading and doing the work of various clerks. Polly (going by “Oliver”) is joined by a religious fanatic, a troll, an Igor, a vampire, and a few others, and soon these last few recruits appear to be the only soldiers in the army not either being held prisoner or confined in a valley. The squad soon comes to think they’ve been lied to about, oh, everything.
Can they win the war?
Commentary: OK, just as a word of warning…major, major, MAJOR SPOILERS follow. I can’t really discuss this book much without giving away its big reveals.
OK, here goes.
Reading this book a second time, it was less surprising that the entire squad was female, except for Lt. Blouse. Even the reveal at the end that Jackrum was a woman the whole time was, obviously, not a surprise when I got to it this time. And they weren’t the only ones. It seems Borogravia has a long history of women in the army…unofficially. Reading this book the first time, I found myself revising how characters appeared in my head as they went from male to female. That said, the big mistake Polly and the others make is getting found out.
Female power was a major theme here. Though Blouse was nominally in charge, and he wasn’t a bad guy (Polly even goes out of her way to think so), the power structure here is very female. Polly is sure to be a successful career soldier when the book is over, even though that was never her objective when she started. Jackrum unmasks a few dozen officers, including the highest ranking general in the army, as female. And, of course, there’s the Duchess.
Women in Borogravia have been getting the short end of the proverbial stick for ages, and Pratchett demonstrates it with the other women. Polly didn’t have it so bad. Her brother was mostly a big harmless dummy, but she needs him back to make sure the family inn stays in good hands. Igorina, Jade the troll, and Maladicta the vampire all have complaints about how they’re treated by their own kind, but the “normal” women in Polly’s squad have their own stories. Shufti was left knocked up by a man who clearly wasn’t coming back. The other three were all abused to one degree or another by the work house they were living in. Nuggan’s Abominations are thoughtless and cruel for the most part (and, we’re told, that he’s actually dead). No wonder the people pray to the Duchess for help.
But then, by the end, after so many disguised women have been unmasked for the reader, Practhett reminds us that women don’t automatically make things better. Many of the bad policies going on were the result of women in power, including the Duchess while she was still alive. It’s not men or women, Polly and Pratchett consider, that make things bad; it’s stupid people that make everything bad.
Besides the commentary on sexism, the book is very much an antiwar novel. Veterans of past conflicts are always described as missing limbs or eyes. Jackrum and Blouse butt heads over how things are done. Jackrum has no respect for officers of any kind, but Blouse, for all that he’s a bit slow on the upkeep and not particularly practical, also isn’t stupid. Some of his tactics sound rather smart, even if Jackrum doesn’t see it. Jackrum is a practical soldier who sees being a soldier as simply a matter of killing the enemy before he kills you. Blouse understands a thing or two about technology.
Also, the role of the media is apparent. Ankh-Morpork is involved in the war, and while that mostly means we get a few scenes of Commander Vimes, Angua, Reg Shoe, and a few other members of the City Watch keeping an eye on things and looking for a way to end the war (war is just another crime to Vimes), the city’s presence is mostly felt though the presence of the newspaper, The Times, with William de Worde writing stories from the front that change the opinion of the war. Yes, Polly and her squad ultimately make the moves that win the war, but the postwar, suggested by Vimes, is a product in part of de Worde’s stories in his newspaper.
A final note on the title: while the words “monstrous regiment” are used at one point to refer to the squad since it has a troll, a vampire, an Igor, and (according to rumor) a werewolf (that’d be Angua following them from a distance but nothing more), the title refers to a 16th century anti-Catholic track, referring to an “unnatural” political condition where women were in charge. In that case, “monstrous” meant “unnatural,” and since Nuggan’s Abominations would have had the women as unnatural, the title takes on a double-meaning.
NEXT BOOK: I’ve come to another one I’ve never read before. Be back soon when Tiffany Aching comes back, becomes an apprentice, and gets possessed by a hive-minded thing in A Hat Full of Sky.