I would like to start with a brief note. I asked my friends which of four books I should review. They said “Yes”. Four reviews in a day is excessive, but I need to show them that if you give a silly answer, silly things happen. This’ll show ’em.
Show them exactly how stupid I am.
Monstrous Regiment is a book about what we show, or don’t show. It is also, conveniently for this segue, a book about stupidity. A lot of books about war are.
The country of Borogravia is often at war. It doesn’t have a lot else to offer the world thanks to a culture and religion that has stifled innovation and productivity and left little but blind loyalty.
It’s into one of these wars that Polly Perks, daughter of a wealthy publican, inserts herself. Her brother marched off and has become lost; Polly’s intent on finding him. But a woman can’t join Borogravia’s regiments, so Polly borrows some trousers, practises swaggering, and calls herself Oliver. Or Ozzer, for short.
Very folk song.
This is several stories in one. There’s the story of Polly and the search for her brother, and her comrades and their searches. There’s the story of Polly pretending to be a man, and sometimes pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman, and all that entails. There’s the story in which they learn how to be soldiers. And there’s the story of how a culture can change, just a little. These strands meld together so there’s almost no time it’s just one strand, making every scene rich with detail.
Pratchett is famed for his the variety of his stories, and the spectrum of darkness and comedy his stories span. Monstrous Regiment sits in a sweet spot in the middle. There are several moments pointing at just how horrifying war and life in Borogravia can be, but the moments themselves are off-screen. A lot of the book is played for laughs but Pratchett doesn’t push too far, content to let the situation speak for itself without piling on too many gags. The way he sets up these situations is masterful; everything feels like a natural, inevitable piece of the story.
If there is one criticism I’d level at this book, it’s that the characters maybe lack some of the depth shown in other Discworlds. I guess that’s just natural given this is mostly standalone, and they all have histories, personalities, and charm, but this is Polly’s show. If she shares it with anyone it’s with Sergeant Jackrum, a soldier of immense cunning and protectiveness who fools and bulls their way through nearly every obstacle en route. There’s a touch of the Vimes to Jackrum – and Vimes appears in this book briefly too, in a cameo that made me cheer.
I have, in the name of trying a succinct review, skipped over several large aspects of this book to try and avoid spoilers. I slightly regret that decision as they part of what makes this story great but, well, I’d like to think I’ve given people more than enough reason to read this book as is. If I haven’t know this story includes a vampire hallucinating that they’re in ‘Nam, the most obviously fake woman ever, a remarkable military tribunal, and several other minor marvels. Monstrous Regiment is the work of a master storyteller at his peak and a cracking piece of fantasy.