Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett
“If you’re looking for grief, look to the ladies”
Borogravia is at war with Zlobenia, and the war is going badly for the Borogravians. Polly has stayed home to run her family’s pub, The Duchess, while her brother Paul has been away at the front. It’s been weeks since Polly has heard from her brother, and she worries that since women cannot inherit property in Borogravia, her family might lose The Duchess if her brother is lost. Besides, there’s no one else left to enlist, so young Polly decides it’s time to join the army. Unfortunately, given that women in Borogravia are not allowed to own property, it is no surprise that they are also prohibited from enlisting in the army. Polly disguises herself as a boy and signs on with Sergeant Jackrum’s Ins and Outs. In order to fit in, Polly practices belching, picking her nose, and scratching herself.
She joins the regiment and begins training, worrying all the while that she’ll be found out. Instead, she begins to discover other women among the recruits disguised as men. One of the other women disguised as a man compliments Polly on her belching and nose picking, but advises her to stuff a sock down her pants.
Actually, the entire regiment is unusual. Sergeant Jackrum is fat and irreverent. Maladict is a vampire who has stopped drinking blood but is now addicted to coffee, Carborundum is a troll, and Igor is an Igor. Though the recruits are unusual, Polly helps them to humiliate the Zlobenian prince and they come up with a plan to free their imprisoned countrymen from the enemy keep. As one character points out, “if you’re looking for grief, look to the ladies.”
Monstrous Regiment appears to have been written while America and its coalition of the willing prepared to invade Iraq. Though I expected the novel to more directly speak to its historical context, Pratchett prefers to riff on earlier war literature. I often found myself recalling All Quiet on the Western Front. Although soldiers are often expected to be brave and gung-ho, Remarque’s memoir contradicts social expectations, much as Polly and her peers upend social taboos in Borogravia’s army. There is also a trial before the end of the novel that recalls Stanley Kubrick’s film, Paths of Glory. There are older sources of inspiration than the First World War, especially “Sweet Polly Oliver,” an English folk song about a girl who disguises herself as a boy in order to follow her lover to war. And Pratchett’s novel appears to take its name from John Knox’s sixteenth century polemic against female monarchs, “The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.”
I was disappointed to realize that Polly had an easier time getting into the army than I did getting into Pratchett’s story. I was surprised while reading about Monstrous Regiment to learn that “wartime cross-dressers” has its own Wikipedia entry, but I otherwise did not find the novel very compelling. Borogravia, though bizarre, is not as interesting as Ankh-Morpork. Commander Vimes, one of my favorite DISCWORLD characters, appears briefly, but his role is very small.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of Monstrous Regiment is that its humor is based on jokes that Pratchett has mostly already told. It is not uncommon for Pratchett to reveal that one of his apparently male characters is actually a woman, and so an entire novel that plays on this dynamic felt predictable. Even taken as a mature or solemn (as opposed to “merely funny”) commentary on war or gender roles, I found Monstrous Regiment lacking in comparison with Jingo or Equal Rites. Besides, Pratchett’s best work is provocative, touching, and irreverently funny.
Monstrous Regiment is the 31st DISCWORLD novel and the seventh individual story. It remains the only story to date to feature Polly Perks. It can be read alone without feeling very unprepared, but it can probably also be skipped by prospective readers without feeling regret. Ultimately, I recommend Monstrous Regiment to completists and to those readers that simply cannot get enough of Pratchett’s women that disguise themselves as — or are mistaken for — men.
I listened to Harper Audio’s production of Monstrous Regiment, which was read by Stephen Briggs. Briggs is one of my favorite readers, so I was surprised to find that his reading did not add as much depth to the story as it usually does. Perhaps it was the source material, given that Sergeant Jackrum and Polly make up most of the dialogue but neither character is very funny.
Discworld — (1983-2015) Discworld is a satirical fantasy world created by Terry Pratchett to poke fun at 1980s fantasy novels. Since then, they’ve evolved so that they now make fun of everything. Mr. Pratchett explains Discworld: “The world rides through space on the back of a turtle. This is one of the great ancient world myths, found wherever men and turtles are gathered together; the four elephants were an indo-European sophistication. The idea has been lying in the lumber room of legend for centuries. All I had to do was grab it and run away before the alarms went off… There are no maps. You can’t map a sense of humor. Anyway, what is a fantasy map but a space beyond which There Be Dragons? On the Discworld we know There Be Dragons Everywhere. They might not all have scales and forked tongues, but they Be Here all right, grinning and jostling and trying to sell you souvenirs.” The Discworld novels are presented here in publication order. To read more about the Discworld “arcs” and reading order, see this Wikipedia article.
Discworld for Kids:
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