Monstrous Regiment

by Terry Pratchett | Science Fiction & Fantasy |
ISBN: 0552149411 Global Overview for this book
Registered by erinacea of Friedrichshain, Berlin Germany on 12/19/2018
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1 journaler for this copy...
Journal Entry 1 by erinacea from Friedrichshain, Berlin Germany on Wednesday, December 19, 2018
Another Discworld book bought and read along with Mark Shapiro's reading project.

Warning! This review contains major spoilers!

Plot:
In search of her brother, Polly enlists in the Borogravian army disguised as a boy. After many years of war, non-enlisted young men are rare, so the rag-tag band also includes a troll, a vampire and an igor. And soon Polly begins to suspect she might not be the only girl either.
Propelled by events, this monstrous regiment finds themselves in charge of turning around - or even stopping! - the war.


[rant about the German publishers]
Many years ago I saw this book in a German bookstore and, intrigued as always about the identity theme that's a natural part of any protagonist-in-disguise story, I immediately started to read. The thing is, the German copy was titled (major spoiler, highlight to make it visible) "Das Weiberregiment" (The Women's Regiment), so I naturally assumed that most, if not all members, of the Ins and Outs would turn out to be female. At the same time there was a certain subtext to the writing that seemed to promise a big twist. Imagine my disappointment when said "twist" turned out to be exactly what I had expected from the start.

To be fair, the German title is a direct translation of the document alluded to in the original title, and other commenters have argued that in the English speaking world, most readers would make the same connection. However, judging by other commenters' reaction, that's simply not true. And even if it was, the original title is much more subtle and gives the reader a sizable chance to conclude that Pratchett might simply be referencing the document in question but go somewhere completely different (the Ins and Outs, as initially presented are very much a "monstrous regiment"), as he did with other Discworld novels. The German version, on the other hand, is extremely on the nose and bars any other explanation other than the obvious one.

My point is that after about half of the book I felt extremely upset and gave it up as a lost cause. The only reason it didn't put me off Pratchett and the Discworld completely was that I had the presence of mind to check the original title to confirm that it was, indeed, the German publisher who had screwed up rather than the author himself.
[/rant]

Given all that, I went into this half-reread/half-completion with very mixed feelings. Would the story be able to overcome this bitter resentment? Was there another twist still in store for me that would leave me surprised by the ending?

In short, the answer to both of these questions is, Yes.

Once I got over my initial misgivings, I greatly enjoyed this book and the discussions it sparked. Other than I had expected (and maybe misremembered), the story goes way beyond the not at all uncommon "girl dresses as boy to [insert action women are not allowed to do]".

(more spoilers) Not only is Polly far from the only female soldier in her regiment, on my first half-read I completely missed the diversity among her fellow soldiers. They all have different backgrounds, different experiences and different reasons to join the army.

At some point during the continued revelations of who else among the regiment was secretly female, I found myself questioning my assumptions: Was there anyone in this story I could be 100% sure was male? (I think it was at that point that the story started to click with me, when it forced me to reevaluate my own preconceptions.)

Pratchett also doesn't shy away from difficult topics: There's a soon-to-be single mother searching for her lover who abandoned her, an abused girl seeking solace in religion, and Pratchett's first lesbian couple with a dark history of their own. There are allusions to rape, patriarchal inheritance laws, the Magdalene Laundries, transgender issues, and other topics I would not have expected and somehow completely missed on my first read.

Even the non-human recruits are railing against stereotypes of their own, but (satirical as they may be) even these feel hauntingly familiar. (Why should a female vampire have to follow the role of "femme fatale"? Why should Igorina not be allowed to practice medicine, as is traditional for all (male) Igors?)

Since Polly comes from a middle-class family (her father owns an inn), Pratchett also gets to explore the topic of privilige. Over the course of the story, Polly gets to know her fellow recruits and realize that their stories are so much worse than her own. Yet somehow that doesn't devalue her own reasons for joining, which were to find and rescue her brother, not just out of sisterly affection but because, other than her, he would be able to inherit their father's inn, whereas Polly's future would entirely depend on the goodwill of some distant cousin taking over the family business.

As Sergeant Jackrum increasingly becomes a mentor figure for Private Polly Oliver, the story also breaches the topic of women climbing the ladder of success. Near the end (after a lot of reveals), Maladicta is still awestruck to see Sergeant Angua (in one of the Watch series' cameos) openly presenting as a woman in a leadership position. For her, this brief meeting opens up the possibility of a future where she could be whatever she wants to be and no longer have to hide her gender.


I'm sorry about the essay length of whitened out text, but it's simply impossible to discuss this fabulous book without mention of spoilers.

One part I didn't like much (to my own surprise) was Vimes' cameo. I didn't mind Angua's cameo (as mentioned above) and I was happy to see William de Worde and Olaf again, but I felt that the (few) scenes focusing on Vimes detracted from the story. I mean, it makes sense that Vetenari would send his Überwaldian ambassador to put an end to this war that had been going on for decades, if only to make sure the Clacks communication stays active, so having the Ins and Outs run across members of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch didn't seem out of place. I guess I'm mostly bothered by Vimes' first big scene which mostly exists as a big infodump of an outsider (Vimes) learning about Borogravian history and customs. I felt the same could have been achieved in a much smoother, less intrusive way by having Polly think about it, which she does anyway, so it would simply take the reader a bit longer to get there. That, and we'd have skipped Vimes' snarky comments on how "backwards" Borogravia is (which I didn't like anyway).
I think the book would have worked just as well (and possibly better) if that entire scene had been cut. Since it also serves as introduction to Vimes' role and personality before the regiment eventually gets to meet him, I think Pratchett would have had to make some slight adjustments to introduce him indirectly, for example by way of having de Worde mention his arrival in Borogravia.

New ranking:
1. Carpe Jugulum
2. Small Gods
3. Maskerade
4. Monstrous Regiment
5. Men at Arms
6. Night Watch
7. The Truth
8. Jingo
-------- (imaginary line splitting special favourites from "normal" favourites)
9. Guards! Guards!
10. Reaper Man

Next up: A Hat Full of Sky

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