~~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.
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:(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.(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.(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.(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.(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:(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
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.
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)