by Terry Pratchett
Review by Pat Nash
Harper Collins HCVR ISBN/ITEM#: 006001315X
Date: September 20, 2003 List Price 24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK /
Pratchett is in rare form in his latest book, The Monstrous Regiment. He is in such rare form that this is going to be an extremely difficult review to write. You see, reviewers are supposed to briefly describe the conflict and major characters, without giving away "spoilers" about the plot. Divulging the methods the characters use to achieve their goals, and the revelations and changes in the goals and the characters themselves, would constitute one whopping spoiler. I feel a little guilty for covering the characters introduced by page 9. By page 57 the clues to the later surprises are coming thick and fast.
What I can tell you is that Terry and Lyn Pratchett have given us another wonderful Discworld novel. For any of you unfamiliar with the genre, Discworld is the unique result of infinite possibilities in the universe. It's flat, it's borne on the backs of four immense elephants who stand atop the shell of a space-faring turtle, and the elephants have to lift a leg periodically to let the sun orbit. The place has a magical field the way more prosaic planets have a magnetic field, and philosophers who doubt the existence of gods have to run down the street dodging lighting bolts.
All this is merely background for the uninitiated. Borogrovia, a country noted for its national pride and not much else, has a glorious history of "protective reaction strikes" against all of its neighboring states -- who have now banded together to drive the dwindling Borogrovian army back across borders that shift with each Spring flood. Polly Perks, daughter (but not heir) of an aging innkeeper, decides to dress as "Oliver", cut her long blonde tresses, and join the army of the Duchess of Borogrovia. She is going in search of her older brother Paul, a gullible young man who joined up the previous year. She's worried -- they've had no news from him in the past two months. This is a fate that all too often strikes in the Borogrovian countryside, whose able-bodied farming population is dwindling at the same rate that the number of widows increases.
"Oliver" takes the Duchess's shilling (now an I.O.U.) along with a motley collection of country bumpkins answering to such nicknames as Wazzer, Lofty, Tonker, and Shufti. Her fears of being "outed" as a girl continue in spite of a mystery advisor and the army's "don't ask, don't tell" policy concerning trolls, vampires and Igors. For those of you who may not be familiar with the inhabitants of Pratchett's Discworld, "Igor" is a family name for a race of lab assistants extraordinaire, whose skills with scalpel and sutures give new meaning to such phrases as "hair transplant", "lending an ear", and "he has his grandmother's eyes".
The new recruits are under the command of weasely Corporal Strappi, and Sergeant Jackrum, a rotund and red-faced guide to survival. His lessons range from liberating foodstuffs to the art of leading one's officers. Polly/Oliver is appointed batman to Captain Blouse, whose idea of fame is to have a piece of military apparel or a culinary creation named after him. Their goal is to join the main forces besieging Kneck Keep.
Their mission seems hopeless. The lists of "Abominations" issuing from the priests of Nuggan, the Borogrovian deity, complicate everyone's lives: the list now includes babies, the color blue, and accordion players, not to mention women in uniform. Prayers to the folk cult of the Duchess go unanswered. The Borogrovians who held the fort at Kneck Keep are now captives in its dungeons. Cavalry troops of Prince Heinrich of Zlobenia (the Duchess's heir), reconnoiter on Borogrovian soil. Ankh-Morpork has sent military advisors, as a result of Borogrovia's interference with the semaphore line and mail-coaches. And then there are these mysterious "war correspondents"...
Yes, things seem hopeless for this rag-tag band, but in Borogrovia, things are seldom what they seem. Everybody has a secret, except maybe His Grace, Sir Samuel Vimes, Duke of Ankh-Morpork, and he isn't talking. While he and his Watchmen are featured prominently in the stories Men At Arms, Feet of Clay, Jingo, The Fifth Elephant, The Truth, and The Night Watch, he isn't protagonist in this story, functioning more as Greek chorus and part-time deus ex machina. You can imagine the kind of military advice given by a man who thought, "If they'd been people, scuffling in the gutter... he'd have banged their heads together and maybe shoved them in the cells overnight. But you couldn't bang countries together."
The rest of the review is going to look like the Borogrovian censors got to it.
Pratchett alludes to the story of -- no, that would give away too much of the plot. Let's just say he drags in Bucephalos; transvestites; school lunches; Viet Nam; the importance of coffee, tea, and wool socks; several centuries of European warfare; and some serious analysis of the compromises made by women in the military.
And it's very funny. Polly's observations on walking like the boys in the taproom ("I'm big, I'm fierce, I'm cool, I'll have a pint of shandy, and me mam wants me home by nine") was priceless.
This book has raised my consciousness in an unexpected way. While the big print on the book-covers always says, "Terry Pratchett", the small print on the page with the copyright information and the ISBN number says "Terry and Lyn Pratchett". Pratchett books always have strong and believable female characters -- even if they fly broomsticks, walk through walls, or turn into wolves when the moon is full. There is a subtle difference in the characterizations in Terry Pratchett's collaboration with Neil Gaiman on Good Omens. I think we all owe a debt of gratitude for Lyn Pratchett's contributions to the Pratchett canon. This book does a magnificent job illustrating how women think, how men think about women, and how those thoughts influence behavior.