So how on earth did I come to overlook this one? I suppose the answer is that I was only a casual Pratchett reader at the time, and I was a little busy in 2003, but I’ve read all the ones before it and all the ones since, only having a perfunctory glance through Monstrous Regiment. Until now.
It’s not really a regiment, as it happens, more of a squad, and a pretty run down and pathetic one at that. But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. I mentioned in my review of Snuff that the later Pratchett works tended to lean more towards plausible horrible things as opposed to evil witches or the Fair Folk or whatever, and while Night Watch was probably the tipping point of that process by this point it’s fully in bloom. And while this made aspects of Snuff and I Shall Wear Midnight so realistically horrible that it diminished my enjoyment of them, this is one of the strongest standalone Pratchett novels that I’ve ever read. I’m actually embarrassed for not reading it sooner.
Also, fair warning – this book is nearly 10 years old and any in-depth discussion is going to involve massive spoilers. Don’t keep going unless you’ve already read it or don’t care.
The heroine of this novel is one Polly Perks, who lives in a crappy small town in the Discworld equivalent of Eastern Europe. Her nation, Borogravia, is provincial and constantly at war with its neighboring small countries over one thing and another, particularly religion, with which Borogravia is heavily afflicted. Their deity, Nuggan, has a living testament which is gradually declaring more and more things to be Abominations; going beyond typical stuff like women wearing trousers and other sorts of traditional bugbears into the deranged, such as forbidding jigsaw puzzles, crop rotation, rocks, and the color blue. It’s mentioned that since basically everything is an Abomination that daily life is something of a series of overlooking things and technicalities.
They’ve also got something like Salic law there, so Polly can’t inherit the tavern which is the only thing of note her father possesses (her mother’s dead). There’s an older brother, who is kind and somewhat mentally challenged, but he got drafted into the army and hasn’t been heard from in a while. If Polly’s father dies without the brother around then she’ll be either on the street or at the mercy of her worthless drunk uncle – possibly both. This is intolerable. Therefore, she resolves to join the army herself, find her brother, and bring him back home by any means necessary, and be damned to the fact that this is also an Abomination. So she goes to the next town to enlist and finds out that she passes for a male just fine, possibly because there aren’t many other young men around left to recruit and all the other recruits are just as skinny and nervous as her. And they also all turn out to be women in disguise too.
I can’t emphasize enough how in control of the narrative Pratchett is here. Borogravia is a crappy country that (probably) started this latest war; nonetheless the individual people are sympathetic without taking that left turn into maudlin. It’s pretty easy to remember that in many traditional books the Borogravians would be the bad guys, and they sort of are; at the same time they may have responsibility but they are not guilty. As such. In addition, the head of Zlobenia, the opponent de jure, is also portrayed as a huge asshole, for instance assuming that all women will be sufficiently impressed with his exalted position to want to sleep with him, and that protests that this is not correct are simply for show. At one point he attempts to molest Polly, who is ‘disguised’ as a male soldier disguised as a barmaid (it’s complicated), and so we’re pretty happy that he gets kicked in the junk and left naked and hogtied in an outhouse. At the same time you are painfully aware that if he succeeded in conquering Borogravia that things would probably be a lot better around there.
Polly’s squadmates are the motley crew you’d expect. Three of them are refugees from a reformatory for Bad Girls (think the Magdalene Laundries, including beatings and sexual assaults); one’s trying to find the soldier who impregnated her and ran off, and then there’s a troll, a vampire, and an Igorina, all of whom have their own motivations for joining the army. The actual males in the squad are a sleazy political informer and Lieutenant Blouse, a man of privileged upbringing who manages to cut his own sword hand while practicing but is somewhat smarter than he appears, at least regarding mathematics if not gender issues. (At one point he declares that his squad couldn’t convincingly disguise themselves as women and that he’d have to do it himself.)
Then there’s Sergeant Jackrum, a soldier of unascertainable age and considerable girth, one step ahead of some discharge papers, and who in the tradition of fine NCOs everywhere elides all simple moral concerns and simply tries to keep everyone alive. Mostly Sergeant Jackrum, of course, but if all the sqaddies make it that’s also ideal. Jackrum’s not easy to fool and spots all the women right away, but again in fine NCO tradition, doesn’t really care all that much as long as orders are followed.
Oh, and in the other corner is Sam Vimes of Ankh-Morpork, who’s been sent with some military forces to win the war on behalf of Zlobenia for the greater commercial benefit. Or in general to do whatever it is he feels necessary to restore order. You may remember that he once solved another war by arresting both armies, and although that may not exactly be an option for him here Vimes also figures out what’s going on pretty quickly and drives a lot of the action.
This book heavily subverts the idea that the world would be better if women did the fighting. Polly notes that it’s always the old women in town who turn out for the public executions and who lead the way in turning over other women to the religious police, and as it turns out to make it in the army the women have to be even better men than the men are. Polly’s squad isn’t the first set of women in the army, and it eventually becomes apparent that quite a few of the thickheaded senior commanders are also women in disguise. With the other gender disguising plot it quickly becomes apparent that women can more easily disguise themselves as men since they live in a men’s world and actually understand it, while the men think they understand women but really have no idea what women really have to go through in life. All of this is done fairly gently but the message is loud and clear.
There’s no peace as long as people are willfully stupid, so the ending of this book is probably a lot more bittersweet than most of Pratchett’s other works are. Nonetheless, things probably improve a little and they at least had relief for a season, so it’s not entirely bad. Still, this turned out to be surprisingly moving and memorable, altogether one of the stronger stand-alone Disc novels.