Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett

Monstrous Regiment is Terry Pratchett’s 29th novel set in Discworld, a world just enough like ours to be uncomfortable. Fans of the series know that Pratchett dollops out healthy doses of satire and social commentary, all delivered via wonderful stories and characters real enough to make us care. If you’ve never read a Discworld novel before, this one is as good a place to start as any, since it presents a new cast of characters and doesn’t require a Discworld primer before you dive in.

The main theme Pratchett tackles this time around is war, in all its glorious vagaries and inconsistencies. Along the way he deals with women in the military, religion, and (as usual) the ever-present bureaucracy.

Polly Perks is a girl searching for her brother, who has gone missing on the front lines for his native Borogravia. Even though women aren’t technically allowed in the army, Polly manages to sneak by with a new haircut and a well-placed pair of socks. The fact that the army has been reduced to recruiting vampires, trolls, and zombies is an indication that Borogravia may not be doing as well in the war as all the propaganda says.

The Borogravians’ adherence to a strict and often bizarre canon of religious laws passed down from their god Nugan, who may or may not be dead, compounds the issues of war. The Duchess, once the ruler of their country, has not been heard from in years and so has been promoted to the status of a deity and figurative leader of the Borogravian army. Of course, said army is trapped in a position where it can’t win but won’t back down, and the Duchess doesn’t seem overly concerned.

There may not be a lot of subtlety here, but much of the book is more than one-dimensional. I thought at first that perhaps the issue of women in the military was pass√© — surely the idea that one gender is inherently better at certain tasks than the other is an old and tired one, one we’ve all moved past. Then I told my uncle George in western Pennsylvania about the plot of Monstrous Regiment and he spouted off something about liberal pinko Commie crap and the superiority of men in all matters martial. My aunt Francine snorted and said George was full of crap, then shooed him out of the kitchen because men have no idea how to cook or clean up after themselves.

Of course, the title for this book comes from a 16th century misogynist pamphlet written by John Knox, arguing (surprisingly enough) that women should not be in positions of authority, including the military. Many of his arguments were based on religion — namely Christianity. In one way, it is almost awe-inspiring to realize that these issues were important hundreds of years ago. In another way, it’s discouraging to think this is all the farther we’ve gotten.

There were some editing issues in the review copy I received, which led me to wonder if perhaps the publisher tried to push this book to market early enough to capture some of the publicity of all the events in Iraq. If that is the case, I don’t know that it’s such a bad thing. By exploring these issues through fiction (and entertaining fiction at that), Pratchett achieves something that all the talking heads and chest-beaters on TV can’t. He makes you think. You may not agree with all his arguments, but later you realize you’re thinking about why you don’t. The story is always at the forefront, fooling you into thinking you’re just reading a good yarn, and Pratchett manages to walk right on the edge of proselytizing without ever quite crossing over. The characters behave realistically, and every idea is presented through that filter, so you don’t ever feel like Pratchett’s wagging his finger at you and telling you what to think.

As he does in all the Discworld novels, Pratchett skewers bureaucracy. Having worked for a short period of time in state government, I find the passages on endless paperwork and mindless rules more frightening than funny, because they run so close to the truth. I doubt Pratchett will be able to effect much change in this area, but maybe if people keep pointing out the absurdities inherent to the system we can at least slow the decay.

Pratchett’s greatest strength is the fact that he doesn’t ever give a clear-cut solution to the problems he deals with. He points out many of the fallacies of war: patriotism versus realism, the failings of halfhearted diplomatic efforts, and the fact that the enemy is not always evil incarnate. War is hell, yes, but there is no tidy “it can all be fixed by a little love” twist here. At first, it also appears that Pratchett will lambaste religion, but by the end of the book he’s given some real pause for reflection on the difference between religious fanaticism and faith. The ending of the book is no fairy tale or happily ever after schmaltz. Pratchett concludes that people are people, and there is no magic cure for human stupidity. Discworld, it seems, isn’t so different from the real world after all.