Good evening, gentlemen! Please pay attention. I am a reformed vampire, which is to say, I am a bundle of suppressed instincts held together by spit and coffee. It would be wrong to say that violent, tearing carnage does not come easily to me. It’s not tearing your throats out that doesn’t come easily to me. Please don’t make it any harder.
-Private Maladict, Black Ribboner and soldier in the service of Borogravia, to recent captures
It is not an unusual story; a woman dresses as a man to get into the army, for various reasons; this story can be seen in history as well as fiction. When the woman lives on the Discworld, though, the story takes one of those off-kilter spins. This is the rather simple opening of Monstrous Regiment.
Polly Perks wants to join the army-specifically, the army of Borogravia, which is a small country with a short temper, ruled by Duchess Annagovia (at least in name). It’s also got a fairly strict religion following the god Nuggan that has declared a whole bunch of things as Abominations. You know, the usual list: chocolate, dwarfs, the color blue, and clacks towers (this religion’s got the only holy book with a appendix with room for additions). Another Abomination is the idea of women owning property. Borogravia also has an irritating habit of taking lands that really doesn’t belong to it. This has given it no shortage of enemies.
Polly wants to join the army mainly because of the aforementioned Abomination laws (women can only inherit “the things of women”, which property definitely doesn’t fall under); in order for her to keep her family’s inn-ironically named “The Duchess”-she needs to get her brother, Paul. Who was last seen serving in the army’s Tenth Foot, a.k.a “The Ins-and-Outs”. So when they happen to be passing through, Polly cuts short her hair, and dresses appropriately to have a man made of her (er, so to speak). It turns out that Paul is presently MIA, but she doesn’t have any other leads. Besides, the crew she falls in with is a handful enough. It would be bad enough trying to keep her gender a secret among a “normal” army. However, the new recruits include a vampire with a craving for coffee, a troll, and an Igor (who always believe in recycling parts….). And she soon discovers that many of these people have their own secrets.
Throw in the fact that one of the latest enemies is a city that is miffed by having its clacks towers burned down (that would be “Ankh-Morpork”), and the situation becomes very slippery indeed; it doesn’t help that along with soldiers, Ankh-Morpork has sent the second most powerful man in the city and nicknamed “The Butcher” to see to things. There’s also little details like opportunistic national neighbors and the media that also enjoys to get involved with times of turmoil; all of which keep the Ins-and-Outs occupied; and nobody’s quite sure what’s become of the Duchess herself….
In all honesty, this book didn’t grab me as much as other Discworld offerings, and I can’t really put my finger on why; it isn’t because of the characters-between Maladict the vampire, Polly, Sergeant Jackrum (I love the character’s way of speaking-“Upon my oath!”), and “The Butcher”, there’s not any shortage of interesting characters. Perhaps it is a bit of the plot, which seems to meander at times (although, I’ll admit, when you’re on the side of the army that is losing, your options get a little limited). Or perhaps there’s a bit too much going on at once; we’ve got Polly’s infiltration of the Ins-and-Outs, the broader picture of the war, the Ankh-Morpork point of view, the media involvement….
All the same, Monstrous Regiment does have a large number of fun moments, and Pratchett once again manages to take some shots at the various conventions (for some reason, of the entire regiment, Polly doesn’t have any trouble at all with “pretending” to be a woman, just as one example). And given the way things tend to trend up to midway through the books, some of the final revelations won’t be horribly surprising, although there quite a bit of irony involved. This isn’t a bad book at all, but it didn’t really turn out to be my cup of tea (I’ve probably been spoiled by the City Watch grouping of books, and the Death grouping, and the Witches grouping….)