Monstrous Regiment (Discworld, #31) - Terry Pratchett
~~moved from GR~~
"GOD hath revealed unto some in this our age, that it is more than a monster in nature that a Woman shall reign and have empire above Man. ...To promote a Woman to beare rule, or empire above any realme, nation or citie, is repugnant to nature, contumelie to God, and a thing moste contrariouse to his revealed and approved ordenance."
--John Knox, First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regimen of Women
.             .

 

  As sweet Polly Oliver lay musing in bed,
A sudden strange fancy came into her head.
"Father nor mother shall make me false prove,
I'll 'list as a soldier, and follow my love.

So early next morning she softly arose,
And dressed herself up in her dead brother's clothes.
She cut her hair close, and she stained her face brown,
And went for a soldier to fair London Town.

--Sweet Polly Oliver

Born in the war-torn, misogynistic country of Borogravia, Polly Perks has grown up with the folksong echoing in the back of her mind. Perhaps, then, it is only natural that when her brother goes missing in action, Polly decides to use the song's example to find her brother. She cuts her hair, practices her swagger, and, equipped with a strategically-placed pair of socks, sets off to enlist. Of course, after countless years of war, Borogravia recruitment is scraping the bottom of the barrel. It isn't long before Polly discovers that she has joined in with a motley crew of trolls, vampires, Igors, and misfits--a truly monstrous regiment. "Oliver" Perks will fit right in.

Although this is one of my all-time favourite Pratchett books, I've avoided writing a review for it. It is simply too dense, too layered, too variable in tone and meaning, too good for me to feel comfortable sitting down for a half hour or so to pound out my thoughts. However, this blank space cries out for a review, and as Pratchett has a gift for the incisive phrase, I'm going to fill it with a jumbled collection of quotes, allusions, and unprocessed thoughts. (It's gonna be long. There are a lot of good quotes.) The tale of a woman dressing up as a soldier is not precisely original, but, as always, Pratchett puts a unique spin on the story. Granted, you'll pick up on the first twist early enough, but I promise there will be a few you didn't predict. Pratchett tells an entertaining, uplifting, and outrageously funny tale, but the story is also something more: a unique, humanistic exploration of fighting, faith, and feminism.

  And it's over the mountains and over the sea ...
Enlist my bonnie laddie and come awa with me.

--Recruiting Sergeant

Monstrous Regiment is indeed a war story, but rather than showing us the adrenaline-filled front lines, we see only the war-torn, exhausted remnants the soldiers have left behind. The story starts with a view of Borogravia, a country so ingrained in jingoism that the language actually has words like "'Plogviehze!' that mean, 'The Sun Has Risen! Let's Make War!' As Pratchett notes, You needed a special kind of history to get all that in one word." Of course, Borogravia would have been left in--well, not peace, I suppose, but to its own devices--had it not impacted the economics of Ankh-Morpork by cutting down the clacks towers. Suddenly, it has become urgent to stop Borogravia, so Sam Vimes, commander of the watch, duke, and blackboard-monitor, has been sent to protect, as he puts it, "the interests of all money-lov...oops, sorry, all freedom-loving people everywhere." As Sam Vimes is one of my favorite characters, I loved seeing him in this cameo role, attempting to outwit William de Worde and making horrible faces behind Lord Rust's back. Since, as Pratchett puts it, Vimes thinks "war was simply another crime, like murder," he's willing to use any tricks available to him to put a stop to it.

In his humorous portrayal of Borogravia, Pratchett highlights the problems in defining patriotism as "My country, right or wrong":

"There was always a war....Borogravia was a peace-loving country in the midst of treacherous, devious, warlike enemies. They had to be treacherous, devious, and warlike, otherwise we wouldn't be fighting them, eh?"

We, as humans, have a natural tendency to create groups by othering, by constructing an identity through shared hatreds. As Pratchett puts it, it can cause "an entire nation to be insane...Not the people, the nation...You take a bunch of people who don't seem any different from you and me, but when you add them together you get this sort of huge raving maniac with national borders and an anthem." What happens when patriotism becomes equivalent to exceptionalism?

"It came swiftly, like a blow, and Polly realized how wars happened. You took that shock that had run through her, and let it boil...it may be corrupt, benighted, and stupid, but it's ours...We have our pride. And that's what we're proud of. We're proud of being proud."

Through the dual gazes of Polly and Vimes, Pratchett explores everything from the nature of the enemy to the hypocrisy of human interest:

"Have I got this right? Although many people have been killed and wounded in this wretched war, it's not been of much 'interest' to your readers? But it is now, just because of us? Because of a little skirmish in a town they've never heard of? And because of it, we're suddenly a 'plucky little country' and people are telling your newspaper that your great city should be on our side?"

A few of my favourite quotes:

[

"You know what most of the milit'ry training is, Perks?...It's to turn you into a man who will, on the word of command, stick his blade into some poor sod just like him who happens to be wearing the wrong uniform. He's like you, you're like him. But if you don't kill him first, he'll kill you."

"Some mother's son, some sister's brother, some lad who'd followed the drum for a shilling and his first new suit. If only she'd been trained, if only she'd had a few weeks stabbing straw men until she could believe that all men were made of straw..."

"Perhaps that's why men did it. You didn't do it to save duchesses, or countries. You killed the enemy to stop him killing your mates,that they in turn might save you..."

"Go. Invade the one place you've never conquered."

]

(show spoiler)

In the end, Pratchett leaves the reader with one conclusion: "Revenge is not redress. Revenge is a wheel, and it turns backwards. The dead are not your masters."

  All I know is they fought so hard
They sent us all to hell, sir.
If ever I 'list for a soldier again
The devil shall be me sergeant.

--The Rogue's March

Although less strident than Small Gods or Carpe Jugulum, Monstrous Regiment is also an exploration of faith. Borogravia's god, Nuggan, is long dead, and all that remains is a rather tetchy shell. The people now turn to the Dutchess, once their ruler, but now an icon of faith. While practical Polly has rejected both Nuggan and the Dutchess, one member of the Regiment, Wazzer, has the sort of belief that is so tangible it could be carved out of the sky. Wazz isn't precisely popular in the regiment, for, as Pratchett notes,

"The presence of those seeking truth is infinitely to be preferred to the presence of those who think they've found it."

Throughout, Wazzer and Polly tangle over the meaning of faith:

"If you don't believe, or want to believe, or if you don't simply hope that there's nothing worth believing in, why turn round? And if you don't believe, who are you trusting to lead you out of the grip of dead men?"

In the end, Pratchett both glorifies and condemns the power of faith.

[While he shows the power of Wazz's pure belief, he condemns blind faith that takes precedence over action. As the Dutchess says,

"Too many hands clasped that could more gainfully answer your prayers by effort and resolve! And what was I? Just a rather stupid woman when I was alive. But you believed I watched over you, and listened to you...and so I had to, I had to listen, knowing that there was no help...I wish people would not be so careless about what they believe."

]

(show spoiler)

 

  And so boldly did I fight, me boys, although I'm but a wench
And in buttoning up me trousers so often have I smiled
To think I lay with a thousand men and a maiden all the while.

--The Female Drummer

The theme that looms largest is the exploration of gender and identity. These types of stories usually portray a lone and unusually gifted and determined woman struggling to find her place in a man's world, creating the unfortunate implication that it takes an exceptional woman to achieve a man's position. Pratchett neatly turns this trope inside out.

[Other than the comic effect, I saw this as the real reason that the entire regiment (except Blouse) turned out to be female. By including broken characters like Lofty and Shufti, Pratchett demonstrates that superficial differences, not innate prowess, separate these gender-defined roles. For further irony, we discover that the women who succeeded in the army actually did believe they were unique and had to be exceptional to "make it" in this domain of men.

"Is there a...a man among you that knew? You thought, every one of you,that you were all alone. All alone. You poor devils. And look at you. More'n a third of the country's high command. You made it all on your own, ladies. What you could have done if you'd acted tog[ether]--"

Pratchett shows how this viewpoint can lead to women being biased against their own gender. Because they feel that they had to outdo the men they competed with, rather than mentor and support the women beneath them, they hold them to the same exacting standards:

"'And you promoted them, did you, if they were as good as men?'
'Indeed not, Sergeant. What do you take me for? I promoted them if they were
better than men.'"

This bias against one's own group is found in our own society and stems from an innate desire to not allow others to "let the side down" and diminish all that we have achieved. Yet by impeding the progress of those we should be supporting, that is precisely the end result.

]

(show spoiler)

Instead, Pratchett explores how such a role can change one's identity. Achieving such a role requires adaptation, but what happens if one gains acceptance by completely remolding one's personality until one becomes precisely what one sought to replace? At first, Polly is intoxicated by her ability to escape her gender:

"Have you noticed men talk.../i>listen to you differently too..It's like the world spins around your socks...Put on trousers and the world changes."

However, she discovers that it is all too easy to lose herself in her role. Achieving equality by perfectly adopting the norms of the group, of becoming what you sought to conquer, is a pyrrhic victory at best. The trick, Polly discovers, is to decide which parts of her personality are her core, the aspects she wants to carry with her.

[I loved the ending here: in most stories, the girl gets the man and returns to gentle domesticity. Pratchett broadens the possibilities: Shufti, Lofty, and Tonker leave the army behind, but Maladicta and Polly decide to return. And they decide what aspects of their identities they want to take with them: the "feminine" uniform and longer hair, sure, but also a pair of cutlasses. In that final scene, Polly lays it out for the new recruits: they have the option to put on the trousers and immediately be seen as equals, but they can also retain more femininity No longer limited by strict gender roles, they can choose who they want to become. In the end, it is their choice.

]

(show spoiler)

Throughout, the song, "The Girl I Left Behind Me" echoes in Polly's thoughts. She proves early on that she can play her role; the true challenge is to not allow it to swallow her identity, to not shed the truest version of herself as the girl she leaves behind her.

[ One of the most masterful aspects of the book is the way that Pratchett captures the tragedy of allowing the role to swallow the self. The women in the upper echelon of the military were so intent upon fitting in, of succeeding, that they ruthlessly sacrificed the aspects of their personalities that would keep them outsiders. But as this sense of isolation is innately tied to unique perspective, in fitting in, the women force themselves into the same viewpoints--and ultimately the same decisions--as the men that they replace. The characters echo this theme; in the beginning, one of the recruits remarks, "I think the world would be a lot better if it was run by women. There wouldn't be any wars," only to discover the irony: their world is run by women, yet the wars continue. As Jackrum confesses,

"I...expected better of 'em, really. I thought they'd be better at it than men. Trouble was, they were better than men at being like men.

Because they had to sacrifice the more "feminine" aspects of themselves to gain leadership, it is the women who cannot accept the idea of openly female soldiers. They perpetrate the very biases they fought so hard to overcome, renforcing the rule that a woman in a man's role must become a man:

"Sadly, the world we live in has certain...rules, you understand? To be frank, the problem here is not that you are women. As such, that is. But you persist in maintaining that you are."

I love the moment of anticlimax when Blouse accepts Polly's true gender without a murmur: "Once again, Polly felt the slightly unbalanced feeling of having tried to jump a hurdle that turned out not to be there." Unlike the female soldiers, Blouse himself is not personally invested in maintaining the boundaries between the roles. Froc et al have no choice but to embrace the identities they have created for themselves, for they cannot regain the aspects of themselves that they have so ruthlessly discarded. ]

(show spoiler)

Jackrum, again, puts it succinctly:

So...whatever it is you are going to do next, do it as you. Good or bad, do it as you. Too many lies and there's no truth to go back to."

A few more wonderful quotes:

[
"'The captain looks bad,' he said. 'What did he try to do to poor little you?'
'Patronise me,' said Polly, glaring at Maladict.
'Ah,' said the vampire."


"'You did wonderfully well, for women.'...A credit to the women of your country. We're proud of you. Somehow those words locked you away, put you in your place, patted you on the head and dismissed you with a sweetie. On the other hand, you had to start somewhere...
'That's very nice of them,' said Polly. 'But we just want to get the job done and go home. That's what soldiers want.'"


"'Would you mind giving me a wallop on the back of the head?' he said, looking wretched. 'So that it doesn't look like I didn't put up a fight against a bunch of women.'
'Why don't you put up a fight?' said Polly, narrowing her eyes. 'We're only a bunch of women.'
'I'm not crazy!' said the guard."


"The enemy wasn't men, or women, or the old, or even the dead. It was just bleedin' stupid people, who came in all varieties." ]

(show spoiler)



My review has focused on the political and social themes, but these are only a small part of the story. Pratchett also creates a host of original and multi-faceted characters, from the bellicose Sergeant Jackrum

[Who actually manages to never lie. Upon her oath, she is not a violent man... ]

(show spoiler)

to the coffee-addicted vampire Maladict to the rather weak-willed Shufti. The story is light and fun and uplifting and hilarious, but it is also thought-provoking and reflective. I don't know if this is a good fit for all readers, but if you are interested in a a deeply humanistic story or an incisive, multilayered, and often comedic examination of warcraft and religion and feminism and more, please give this book a read.
5++ stars.

I dreamt all men were equal
And there were no starving poor
And nations never did quarrel
Nor never went to war

I dreamt all men were angels
And women ne'er wore a frown
Old maids they had large families
As the world turned upside down

--The World Turned Upside Down (Chumbawamba)