Review: Monstrous Regiment, by Terry Pratchett
eagle at eyrie.org
Mon Oct 2 19:24:54 PDT 2023
by Terry Pratchett
Series: Discworld #31
Copyright: October 2003
Printing: August 2014
Format: Mass market
Monstrous Regiment is the 31st Discworld novel, but it mostly stands by
itself. You arguably could start here, although you would miss the
significance of Vimes's presence and the references to The Truth. The
graphical reading order guide puts it loosely after The Truth and
roughly in the Industrial Revolution sequence, but the connections are
There was always a war. Usually they were border disputes, the
national equivalent of complaining that the neighbor was letting
their hedge row grow too long. Sometimes they were bigger.
Borogravia was a peace-loving country in the middle of treacherous,
devious, warlike enemies. They had to be treacherous, devious, and
warlike; otherwise, we wouldn't be fighting them, eh? There was
always a war.
Polly's brother, who wanted nothing more than to paint (something that
the god Nuggan and the ever-present Duchess certainly did not consider
appropriate for a strapping young man), was recruited to fight in the
war and never came back. Polly is worried about him and tired of
waiting for news. Exit Polly, innkeeper's daughter, and enter the young
lad Oliver Perks, who finds the army recruiters in a tavern the next
town over. One kiss of the Duchess's portrait later, and Polly is a
private in the Borogravian army.
I suspect this is some people's favorite Discworld novel. If so, I
understand why. It was not mine, for reasons that I'll get into, but
which are largely not Pratchett's fault and fall more into the category
of pet peeves.
Pratchett has dealt with both war and gender in the same book before.
Jingo is also about a war pushed by a ruling class for stupid reasons,
and featured a substantial subplot about Nobby cross-dressing that
turns into a deeper character re-evaluation. I thought the war part of
Monstrous Regiment was weaker (this is part of my complaint below), but
gender gets a considerably deeper treatment. Monstrous Regiment is
partly about how arbitrary and nonsensical gender roles are, and
largely about how arbitrary and abusive social structures can become
weirdly enduring because they build up their own internally reinforcing
momentum. No one knows how to stop them, and a lot of people find
familiar misery less frightening than unknown change, so the structure
continues despite serving no defensible purpose.
Recently, there was a brief attempt in some circles to claim Pratchett
posthumously for the anti-transgender cause in the UK. Pratchett's
daughter was having none of it, and any Pratchett reader should have
been able to reject that out of hand, but Monstrous Regiment is a
comprehensive refutation written by Pratchett himself some twenty years
earlier. Polly is herself is not transgender. She thinks of herself as
a woman throughout the book; she's just pretending to be a boy. But she
also rejects binary gender roles with the scathing dismissal of someone
who knows first-hand how superficial they are, and there is at least
one transgender character in this novel (although to say who would be a
spoiler). By the end of the book, you will have no doubt that
Pratchett's opinion about people imposing gender roles on others is the
same as his opinion about every other attempt to treat people as
That said, by 2023 standards the treatment of gender here seems...
naive? I think 2003 may sadly have been a more innocent time. We're now
deep into a vicious backlash against any attempt to question binary
gender assignment, but very little of that nastiness and malice is
present here. In one way, this is a feature; there's more than enough
of that in real life. However, it also makes the undermining of gender
roles feel a bit too easy. There are good in-story reasons for why it's
relatively simple for Polly to pass as a boy, but I still spent a lot
of the book thinking that passing as a private in the army would be a
lot harder and riskier than this. Pratchett can't resist a lot of
cross-dressing and gender befuddlement jokes, all of which are kindly
and wry but (at least for me) hit a bit differently in 2023 than they
would have in 2003. The climax of the story is also a reference to a
classic UK novel that to even name would be to spoil one or both of the
books, but which I thought pulled the punch of the story and dissipated
a lot of the built-up emotional energy.
My larger complaints, though, are more idiosyncratic. This is a war
novel about the enlisted ranks, including the hazing rituals involved
in joining the military. There are things I love about military
fiction, but apparently that reaction requires I have some sympathy for
the fight or the goals of the institution. Monstrous Regiment falls
into the class of war stories where the war is pointless and the system
is abusive but the camaraderie in the ranks makes service oddly
worthwhile, if not entirely justifiable.
This is a real feeling that many veterans do have about military
service, and I don't mean to question it, but apparently reading about
it makes me grumbly. There's only so much of the apparently gruff
sergeant with a heart of gold that I can take before I start wondering
why we glorify hazing rituals as a type of tough love, or why the
person with some authority doesn't put a direct stop to nastiness
instead of providing moral support so subtle you could easily blink and
miss it. Let alone the more basic problems like none of these people
should have to be here doing this, or lots of people are being mangled
and killed to make possible this heart-warming friendship.
Like I said earlier, this is a me problem, not a Pratchett problem.
He's writing a perfectly reasonable story in a genre I just happen to
dislike. He's even undermining the genre in the process, just not quite
fast enough or thoroughly enough for my taste.
A related grumble is that Monstrous Regiment is very invested in the
military trope of naive and somewhat incompetent officers who have to
be led by the nose by experienced sergeants into making the right
decision. I have never been in the military, but I work in an industry
in which it is common to treat management as useless incompetents at
best and actively malicious forces at worst. This is, to me, one of the
most persistently obnoxious attitudes in my profession, and apparently
my dislike of it carries over as a low tolerance for this very common
attitude towards military hierarchy.
A full expansion of this point would mostly be about the purpose of
management, division of labor, and people's persistent dismissal of
skills they don't personally have and may perceive as gendered, and
while some of that is tangentially related to this book, it's not
closely-related enough for me to bore you with it in a review. Maybe
I'll write a stand-alone blog post someday. Suffice it to say that
Pratchett deployed a common trope that most people would laugh at and
read past without a second thought, but that for my own reasons started
getting under my skin by the end of the novel.
All of that grumbling aside, I did like this book. It is a very solid
Discworld novel that does all the typical things a Discworld novel
does: likable protagonists you can root for, odd and fascinating side
characters, sharp and witty observations of human nature, and a mostly
enjoyable ending where most of the right things happen. Polly is great;
I was very happy to read a book from her perspective and would happily
read more. Vimes makes a few appearances being Vimes, and while I found
his approach in this book less satisfying than in Jingo, I'll still
take it. And the examination of gender roles, even if a bit less
fraught than current politics, is solid Pratchett morality.
The best part of this book for me, by far, is Wazzer. I think that
subplot was the most Discworld part of this book: a deeply devout
belief in a pseudo-godlike figure that is part of the abusive social
structure that creates many of the problems of the book becomes
something considerably stranger and more wonderful. There is a type of
belief that is so powerful that it transforms the target of that
belief, at least in worlds like Discworld that have a lot of ambient
magic. Not many people have that type of belief, and having it is not a
comfortable experience, but it makes for a truly excellent story.
Monstrous Regiment is a solid Discworld novel. It was not one of my
favorites, but it probably will be someone else's favorite for a host
of good reasons. Good stuff; if you've read this far, you will enjoy
Followed by A Hat Full of Sky in publication order, and thematically
(but very loosely) by Going Postal.
Rating: 8 out of 10
Russ Allbery (eagle at eyrie.org) <https://www.eyrie.org/~eagle/>
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