Monstrous Regiment - Terry Pratchett

Reviewed for Usenet, or see Google's archive for the full thread, including PTerry's comments.

Monstrous Regiment
Terry Pratchett
Harper Collins Publisher

I was in London, I had money, all things were possible. However, given that I'm a quiet bibliophile, all I really wanted was some books from Dream's library; I didn't do too badly, coming home with an advance reading copy of this, Discworld #28 I think [1].

I've only recently read the YA The Wee Free Men (TWFM), and while Monstrous Regiment (MR) is the next 'adult' one in the series, it has some structural similarities to TWFM. Both are set in DiscWorld but feature brand new characters, in mostly new settings. Both could be read as fairly self-contained novels, and both relate to the rest of the series mainly in coda at the end where someone familiar, like the Witches, or Vimes in this case, is involved. Some effort is made to refer back to TWFM from MR, which is presumably an indication that the 'juvenile'/'adult' division in the novels is merely a marketing thing, and not really important to the author?

Polly is a competent young girl working in her father's inn. Her mother has died, and her younger brother has marched away to war. Her brother, Paul, is strong, trusting but very much needs looking after... She misses him, and worries about him. She has seen the returning war heroes from behind the bar, and she is under no illusions as to what is involved, despite the songs.

The war Paul has marched off to, lured by the drums, shiny boots and assured prattle of the recruiting sergeants, is between Borogrovia (their side) and Zlobenia. The border between these two countries is marked by a river, which enjoys flooding and changing course as often as it can. Naturally, Zlobenia and Borogrovia have no particular reason for their enmity - they fight because, well, that's what they do [2]. The obvious political commentary is handled with Pratchett's usual light touch and doesn't turn this into a thinly veiled rant on world affairs, for those of you who might be put off by such a thing [3].

So, the problem is that the shifting river has changed some Zlobenian territory in Borogrovian territory (presumably those bits are now mimsy). The problem is that there were Ankh-Morpock clacks towers on the Zlobenian side, which the new owners promptly burned. This got A-M interested for the simple commercial reason that Zlobenia-Borogrovia are the hour-glass bottle-neck of the continent, and losing clacks through there is disrupting trade. Interestingly, the current envoy is Vimes. Vimes doesn't want war; he's A-M's avatar after all. What he wants is, well, just to get on with the important stuff. War is bad for business.

Enough of the geo-political situation, this isn't a Clancy novel, this is DiscWorld, and this novel is about Polly. Polly wants to get her brother back; Polly is the usual Angua/Carrot style Pratchett hero, and there is a fine tradition of girls marching off to war as boys. Taking her cue from "Sweet Polly Oliver", one of her favourite songs, Polly cuts her hair, practices picking her nose, scratching her crotch, walking as though carrying buckets, becomes 'Olly' and joins up with the Tenth Foot, Light Infantry - the 'Ins-and-Outs'.

Oliver takes 'his' shilling from the other major character, Sergeant Jackrum (his type being familiar to Polly from choruses of "The Devil Shall Be My Sergeant"). The redoubtable, infamous, and seemingly eternal sergeant is as strong a creation as any of the previous DiscWorld stalwarts, and an utter delight to read. "You are my little lads, and I will look after you!"

In the finest dramatic tradition, Sergeant Jackrum, and his shifty Corporal end up marching a mixed bunch of misfits out of the village. As this is DiscWorld they include a troll, a vampire (a black ribboner 'on the wagon' of course), and an Igor (very useful in a squad) - though this 'zany' (oh, how I hate that word!) element of the plot description might still be losing Pratchett 'serious' genre readers in markets like the USA, where he is not yet the institution he is in the UK.

Polly settles in quick; being literate marks her as 'thinks she's smart' and she quickly finds herself as batman to their rupert, bringing him bowls of scubbo and endless cups of saloop, and trying to distract him from doing any thinking, which is best left to the NCOs. Unfortunately for the recruits, the war isn't going so well, their head of state/spiritual leader, The Duchess, is rumoured to be dead for many years, their god is crazy, they have no supplies, no training, no weapons and, er, they seem to be about the only new recruits left... and then some Zlobenian heavy cavalry turns up, complete with war journalists in tow (William de Worde and Otto Criek providing some continuity).

Thinking about it, I'm surprised Pratchett hasn't mined this militaristic vein before, though much of the NCO/Officer material is familiar from the Guards novels; the Sharpe/WW I/Vietnam/DiscWorld mix is a heady one, and well suited to Pratchett's brand of moralising satire. Unlike many of the previous Discworld novels, Monstrous Regiment is easily spoiled, and while the central plot line is highly embroidered with allusions and references [4], and several appalling puns, this is a not really a comedy fantasy; it's funny, but as with Night Watch for example, what the novel is about is serious. Pratchett is just very good at hiding the moralising and satire with his tremendous gift for characterisation and dialogue; an extraordinary trick to pull off. Even someone as gifted as James Morrow doesn't manage to submerge me in the tale so completely; I always know what I'm reading Has A Point, I never completely suspend my disbelief. (I'm being a bit heavy handed pointing this out due to (a) the thread about fantasy being utterly devoid of any merit and (b) similar discussion, prompted by JK Rowling's new release, on TV and papers today. I read outside the genre, and know good from bad; Pratchett sells very well for a reason.)

Personally, I felt the ending went a little too far for my suspension of disbelief (it may be comedic fantasy, but DiscWorld has Rules), but I don't care. This is Pratchett tackling rich new ground, and it's a fine addition to the series, as good as Night Watch. Sure, it feels familiar - the plot is Traditional, the characters are familiar (competent serious young person, a Vimes/Weatherwax mentor etc), and many of the more jokey-jokes painful, but Pratchett is nothing if not absorbing, and the jokey layering of background results in his trademark of surprisingly serious and thoughtful climaxes, thick with dramatic tension, rounding out what might otherwise be dismissed as a 'hilarious romp'.

For my tastes Pratchett's current one-off outings to quiet corners of DiscWorld with new characters are welcome, working much better than the oriental outings for example (though I must admit to enjoying almost everything he writes). The continuity to the established DiscWorld is smoothly introduced, and even new readers shouldn't feel like this is a stand-alone clumsily nailed onto the series - it's just a corner of the tapestry we haven't looked at before. I could easily see TWFM, or MR, re-visits becoming as familiar as the Witches, Death or Guard books have become.

Monstrous Regiment would be an excellent place for any new readers to start as well; certainly better than the now risible The Colour of Magic. Readers familiar with Pratchett will probably need no prompting to head out and buy this when it appears around October, but I'm going to recommend it anyway. Spring for the hardback, it's worth it.


[1] Also got ARCs of Bujold's Paladin of Souls and Lian Hearn's Grass for his Pillow.

[2] This may be a foreign idea to some readers, but I wager I'm not the only one who, due to where they were born, understands that this is a perfectly understandable, reasonable and historically acceptable state of affairs, and best not thought about.

[3] Personally, I would love to read something more stinging by PTerry, but that's not what he does, and I like what he does too much to see him branch out.

[4] Is the Annotated Pratchett File still live? It'll sprout a thick new section if so.

Posted: Fri - June 20, 2003 at 11:37 PM