Polly felt questing eyes boring into her. She was embarrassed, of course. But not for the obvious reason. It was for the other one, the little lesson that life sometimes rams home with a stick: you are not the only one watching the world. Other people are people; while you watch them they watch you, and they think about you while you think about them. The world isn’t just about you.
Pet hate time: I capital ‘H’ HATE novels that don’t nail the landing. I detest loving the first two thirds of a novel before it just fritters away into nothing come the last couple of hundred pages. I feel it seems to happen more in literary novels than other types of fiction. It might be a plot thing; I’m going to wildly generalise and say other sorts of books (mostly genre fiction) have a greater emphasis on plot and structure. I don’t understand why it happens. Surely the editing and rewriting process would mean these kinks would be ironed out before publication?
Pratchett has had a firm grip on structure since he realised the advantages of good plotting around the time of Wyrd Sisters. A few exceptions aside, he never really looked back. Monstrous Regiment is probably the closest he comes to a plot crashing and burning in the third act. He genuinely snatches victory from the jaws of defeat; a strangely postmodern thing given how the book is about a plucky underdog taking on a more powerful neighbour.
War has hit the Discworld again, after the events of Jingo some 10 or so books ago. Borogravia, a backwards theocracy, is at war again with a coalition of the willing protecting neighbouring Zlobenia, which is keen to modernise and become the next Ankh-Morpork.
Polly Perks’ older brother has gone missing while fighting for Borogravia. Because of the backwards culture of Borogravia that doesn’t recognise women’s right to own property, her father’s pub will be passed onto her idiot drunken cousin when he dies. Unless she can find Paul:
Women could inherit ‘the Things of Women’, which were mostly small items of personal jewellery and spinning wheels passed from mothers to daughters. They certainly couldn’t inherit a large, famous tavern.
Borogravia’s problems are twofold, to say the least. The first is its adherence to the god Nuggan and its list of banned things. These abominations are ridiculous, spanning garlic, sneezing and women joining the army. So Polly donning a soldier’s garb and joining the army as Oliver Perks – a spin on the folk song Sweet Polly Oliver (thank the lord for Wikipedia) – is an Abomination unto Nuggan.
The second problem is the fervent nationalism that comes with war. As regular Discworld readers know, belief is what powers gods so the beatification of the Duchess manifests her as a replacement for Nuggan. As Wazzer, one of Polly’s colleagues who is possessed by the Duchess towards the end of the book, says: “From your fear…[the Abominations] come from the part that hates the Other, that will not change. They come from the sum of all your pettiness and stupidity and dullness. You fear tomorrow, and you have made fear your god. The Duchess knows this.”
At face value, the novel is about femininity and gender roles; we learn quite quickly that all of the soldiers in the Monstrous Regiment Polly joins, comprising trolls, vampires and humans, are women. We later learn a great deal of the senior soldiers who led Borogravia to war are also women, as is Sergeant Jackrum, the slightly Kurtz-esque figure leading the regiment.
There are some interesting nods to Thief of Time and its musings about form dictating content, in how the ethereal Auditors of Reality changed and acted like humans when they had physical bodies. This was something they couldn’t help. Pratchett explores these issues again, by looking at the transgender soldiers:
Jackrum put up with Blouse because you’ve got to have an officer, Polly thought. If you don’t have an officer, some other officer will take you over. And a woman by herself is missing a man, while a man by herself is his own master, Trousers. That’s the secret. Trousers and a pair of socks. I never dreamed it was like this. Put on trousers and the world changes. We walk different. We act different. I see these girls and I think: idiots! Get yourself some trousers!
Pratchett lays on the issues women face pretty thickly throughout the book. Polly is lucky, coming from a loving family and someone who takes care of her older brother. But others in the regiment faced worse, the dreaded Girls’ Working Schools that are the Discworld equivalent of the Magdalene Laundries (or too many other real-life examples):
If you were tough, like Tonker, it boiled you hard and gave you a shell. Lofty…it was hard to know. She was quiet and shy until you saw firelight reflected in her eyes, and sometimes the flames were there in the absence of any fire to reflect. But if you were Wazzer, dealt a poor hand to start with, and locked up, and starved, and beaten, and mistreated Nuggan knew how (and yes, Polly thought, Nuggan probably did know how) and pushed deeper and deeper into yourself, what would you find down there?
You are embedded with the regiment throughout the book, aside from occasional steps outside to visit Vimes, here on diplomatic business, or William de Worde, here on newsgathering duties. This zooming in on the conflict has a similar effect as to Night Watch, where you viewed a city-wide revolution through the prism of one neighbourhood. You feel part of the squad and are drawn towards Perks, her loyalty towards her fellow soldiers and her single-minded mission to find her brother.
While Monstrous Regiment works as a character study, I felt the polemics grew a bit tiresome. The intentions were valid but it was far from subtle, and therefore not as effective. Then it goes absolutely haywire in the final quarter of the book when you discover that many of Borogravia’s great military leaders are women and the carpet is pulled from underneath you.
Because if it is women, rather than men, literally leading the charge against other countries, what is being criticised here? And this is where my wittering about ‘making the landing’ above becomes pertinent. Because I felt there was no way of ending what was an enjoyable albeit sledgehammer subtle Discworld novel in a coherent way.
Pratchett is much much smarter than I am. I should have realised this by now.
Monstrous Regiment is more about constraints and the damage they cause society. This can be a patriarchy that dictates how women should act and when they step outside it, they are dubbed Abominations. Perhaps this is why the women trying to pass themselves off as men act in a false creation of what masculinity is and go all Scrappy Doo on neighbouring countries. As de Worde tells Borogravian Lieutenant Blouse: “You’re bottled up and you’ve got nowhere to go and the allies could simply massacre you any time they want, and you act as though you’re just facing some temporary setback.”
The novel ends with the army realising the one place that needs regime change is their own country, as the Duchess notes (in this monstrously long quote – sorry):
“You must invade Borogravia! In the name of sanity, you must go home. The winter is coming, the trusting animals are not fed, old men die of cold, women mourn, the country corrodes. Fight Nuggan, because he is nothing now, nothing but the poisonous echo of all your ignorance and pettiness and malicious stupidity. Find yourself a worthier god. And let…me…go! All those prayers, all those entreaties…to me! 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 there was no help…I wish people would not be so careless about what they believe. Go. Invade the one place you’ve never conquered. And these women will help. Be proud of them.
Polly is someone to be proud of, wishing to stay and make Borogravia “less stupid” but as herself, not Oliver. But there’s a sting at the end of the novel where the Duchess is installed as leader of the country, precisely what she warned not to do. So while women are emancipated more than they were under Nuggan, mistakes are still be made and the book ends with the country at war again. It’s a neatly ambiguous ending, with Polly hopeful of what needed to be done:
Polly decided she knew enough of the truth to be going on with. 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. And no one had the right to be stupid.
Who knew nation building could be so hard? It has been a struggle not to mention wider events thus far but I can’t really write this without mentioning the book was published as the UK and United States went to war against Iraq, a move that proved how difficult effective regime change can be.
On the one hand, you could see Monstrous Regiment as an isolationist tract, arguing countries should get their own houses in order before invading others. This argument would fit neatly with Pratchett’s love of the individual and fear of the mob. “Not the people, the nation,” said Vimes. “Borogravia looks off its head, to me, from what I’ve read. I expect the people just do the best they can and get on with raising their kids which, I might say, I’d rather be doing right now, too. Look, you know what I mean. You take a bunch of people who don’t seem any different from you and me, but when you add them all together you get this sort of huge raving maniac with national borders and an anthem.”
We learn the reason Ankh-Morpork has got involved is because Borogravia is turning back mail coaches and pulling down the clacks towers. It’s against communication and modernity, which Pratchett cannot abide because communication is how we try to learn from each other. But it’s far from perfect with Borogravia marching to war at the end of the novel a rather downbeat ending, despite Polly’s own optimism.
Opinion on this novel is split somewhat – Buzzfeed’s Tom Chivers calls it “clunky” and rates it among the series’ poorest, while Boing Boing’s Cory Doctorow ranks it among Pratchett’s best. I sit somewhere in between. One thing I have found in writing these is how my opinions about a novel crystallise as I bash away at a keyboard. Monstrous Regiment plays with the reader a lot, hitting them over the head with a dogmatic feminist tract before subverting expectations completely and forcing them to think about the role of nation states and our responsibilities to others, within and without our borders. The polemic of the first three quarters is tiresome and to the detriment of the book. But the novel is a much better examination of war than Jingo was, and proves another excellent standalone addition to the Discworld series.
Next up: Tiffany Aching is back, facing more challenges in her journey to becoming a witch in the brilliantly titled A Hatful of Sky. See you next week.