Mate gender politics with geopolitics and you get either a PC nightmare or something very funny. Fortunately, in Monstrous Regiment it’s the latter. Pratchett takes full and unfairly hilarious advantage of the opportunity to skewer everything from military court martials to male swagger. Washington Post Book World
Here’s the gist of the plot: in the time-honoured tradition of assuming the ‘trouser-role’, a young woman with the chirpy name Polly Perks cuts off her hair and goes off to war, trying to find her missing brother.
So far, so straightforward – women dressing up as soldiers in search of a loved one is the stuff of countless bad folkie ballads. However, the war into which Polly ventures isn’t your standard-issue strife, especially since she finds herself enlisted alongside a fully fledged vampire. And, of course, she lives in a country where there is always some sort of conflict going on (‘Usually it was a border dispute, the national equivalent of complaining that the neighbour was letting his hedge grow too long’), and where regional religious beliefs include commandant-like diktats called Abominations . . . the latest being ‘Thou Must Abominate the smell of beets and people with red hair’.
Welcome to the splendidly skewed world of Terry Pratchett – a world that, unlike millions of his diehard readers, I had yet to encounter before this novel, but which I will certainly make a point of getting to know. What is most striking about this journey into his fictional Discworld universe is the fact that the novel itself is something of a high-wire act, in which Pratchett cleverly pirouettes above a cartoonish landscape, juggling satire and fantasy.
More tellingly, you don’t really read Monstrous Regiment for its intricate plotting or its ‘what happens next?’ narrative drive. Rather, the great pleasure of the novel is the author’s imaginative zing. Consider the fact that the previously mentioned vampire, Maladict, is a coffee addict. Or that an all-powerful local Duchess sends out letters of congratulation to parents who have lost a son in battle. . . .
But Pratchett isn’t just a cavalcade of quirky jokes and bizarre flights of fancy. If anything, Monstrous Regiment is also a cleverly thought-out lampoon of the Manichean world view that informs most armed conflicts. His take on religious dogmatism, in all its fanatical glory, could not be more timely (I particularly liked an Abomination which banned sneezing). He also ridicules patriotism and the many brands of militarism, while lambasting xenophobia and its attendant bellicosity.
And yet the great pleasure of the book is that Pratchett never once has to point up his satiric concerns. Instead, you ride along on his tide of outlandish invention, realising that you are in the presence of a true original among contemporary writers – a fantasist who loves naff humour and silly names, and yet whose absurd world is, at heart, a serious portrait of the jingoistic fears that keep us at each other’s throats. Douglas Kennedy in The Times
Many American readers first heard of Terry Pratchett when A.S.Byatt used him to sex up, as some might say, her short-tempered dossier against J.K.Rowling and the grown-ups who love her. In an essay this past summer on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times, after she got through slicing and dicing this sizable swath of humanity, Byatt directed us toward writers who, she argued, have created far more magical explorations of good and evil: Susan Cooper, Alan Garner and Ursula K. Le Guin.
Byatt saved Pratchett for last, pointing up his wit, his ‘multifarious genius for strong parody’ and his ‘amazing sentences’ ….
This marvellously inventive satirist…. Terry Pratchett is difficult to review because you want to offer up your favourite scenes and allusions…. As ever, Pratchett revels in pricking pomp and assurance. But it isn’t going too far to say that of late his real subject, like Wilfred Owen’s, is the pity of war . . . he can move from farce to sadness in seconds . . . Monstrous Regiment is most often spirited and shambolic, but it has some serious heft. Pratchett is on the side of those who make very little fuss, which means he gets to shiv those who do. Kerry Fried in New York Times Book Review
War is hell anywhere but in Pratchett’s latest hilarious fantasy, the 28th wickedly satirical Discworld instalment (after 2002’s Night Watch) which makes some astute comments on power, religious intolerance and sexual stereotyping .… Pratchett’s perceptive handling of a timely topic – countries fighting over a quarrel that began 1,000 years ago and quibbling over borders – may inspire some sighs as well as laughter. And the author’s take on what it takes for Polly to become a man – socks, strategically placed (‘Just one pair, mark you. Don’t get ambitious’) – is nothing short of brilliant.
Forecast: A bestseller in his native Britain, Pratchett has drawn praise from such highbrow critics as A.S.Byatt and Michael Dirda. Despite a nine-city author tour, it may take a Discworld film adaptation to spark similar sales in the U.S. Publishers Weekly
As usual with Pratchett, the plot wanders off into the bushes every 30 pages or so just to have a look around and see whether anything funny is going on. Fortunately, something usually is, thanks to Pratchett’s droll satire that isn’t afraid to stoop to things like cross-dressing to get a giggle.
Surprisingly meaningful but never short of hilarious: a monstrous success for Pratchett. Kirkus Reviews
Not so long ago in a pub far, far, away Terry Pratchett announced that he had discovered an interesting fact. In the American Civil War more than 300 women had enlisted in the army dressed as men. There may have been more. These were just one ones who told people about it afterwards.
One was one of the most successful spies in the entire conflict. ‘His’ own side could not believe ‘his’ ability to dress as a woman and slip through the enemy lines. Ironically, this was due to an amazing ability to convince her own side that she was a male soldier!
It doesn’t take Pratchett long to drag his ideas to a printing press, so here is his fiction on this strange truth.
Borogravia is a country that believes in peace. In fact, it is constantly at war with neighbouring countries on the grounds that one day they just might become a threat to the peace. Just don’t mention ‘weapons of mass destruction’.
Polly comes from a town in the mountains. In Borogravia, a town is more or less defined as an accumulation of widows. Her brother went off to war and to find out what happened to him, she transforms herself into ‘Oliver’ and enlists in the army.
This is unlike anything Pratchett has written before. He has only made a half-hearted effort at humour, which is the first indication of a change of style.
Let’s face it, this is an extended morality tale, one the subjects of pacifism, intolerance and gender, gathered together into a military adventure. It is how John Lennon would write a Sharpe novel if Bernard Cornwell left him to it. Not since Evelyn Waugh’s novel Officers and Gentlemen has conflict faced such a thoroughly cutting questioning. Notably, no joke is attempted. At one point an officer tells them the war is going so wonderfully well that they won’t be having any basic training and can proceed directly to the front. Hurrah! A great piece of writing, akin to Jonathan Swift. There are many morals to this story. War is stupid. There are probably some things worth dying for – but pleasing a god or getting your leader re-elected are not among them. Institutions shouldn’t be intolerant of the occasional misfit, since all humans are misfits. Nothing is entirely what it seems. One person, in the right place at the right time, can change the world. Don’t think in terms of men’s jobs and women’s jobs, as life is one big grey area. Don’t blindly accept what you are told by your state or religion. Remember that women are half the world and that when some women act like men they can be much worse.
I wonder what reaction this book will generate abroad, particularly in light of recent political events. Frankly it’s a Porterhouse Blue for the modern militarised state. They can’t say they didn’t deserve it. It is also very good.
Pratchett probably knows this story won’t appeal to most of his existing fans. However, next time a government tells its sons and daughters to go to war for the glory of their state, it is entirely conceivable that remembering this prying, questioning, book might just save a few lives. Adam Corres in Daily Express
Pratchett’s genius starts with a positively Shakespearean talent for plot-lifting. He mounts a series of hit-and-run raids on Culture high and low, throws the stereotypes in the blender along with the archetypes, and glues them together with empathy. He proceeds with a thorough and logical extrapolation of the starting premise, with a charming tendency to take the plot on a relentless great-circle course around the narrative universe where no, er, sentient being has gone before. And he finishes by loving his characters, and allowing us to understand and love them too. There’s a particular character facet that Pratchett can’t resist, the cultural outsider who has a compulsion to speak the truth as they perceive it, the child who points out that the Emperor has no clothes on. But there are negative as well as positive values in the book. Pratchett is wary of authority figures and the corrupting influence of Power, he abhors cruelty in all its forms, but what he really, really hates is hypocrisy, the kind of wilful self-deception that lets the people with the big sticks believe that this is going to hurt them more than it hurts you (but not enough to stop them enjoying it). I admire and support his values and I cheer him on….
It’s about War. It’s about surviving as a woman in a man’s world (and, of course, surviving as a man in a man’s world, too.) It’s about patriotism, bombast, and what it’s really like to be a vampire with a lust for coffee, or Joan of Arc, or absolutely the best, most archetypal sergeant ever. Read it. It’s a life-affirming experience, trust me on this, okay?
Sue Thomason, in Vector, 232
Background illustration © and by courtesy of Marc Simonetti