Monstrous Regiment
March 30, 2023 9:11 AM - Subscribe

Borogravia, a small mangy cur of a country with nothing much to speak of, is at war. It's always at war, of course, but now they've torn down the Clacks Towers, which brings His Grace Duke Samuel Vimes in as ambassador to hopefully finally put a stop to things. And William de Worde of the Ankh-Morpork Times in to cover the stories on the ground. And Polly Perks, a young barmaid, chops off her hair and puts a sock in her trousers to enlist in the last company Borogravia can hope to recruit in this struggle, every member of which seems to have a secret. (Discworld #31, Industrial Revolution #3.) By Terry Pratchett.

Welcome (or welcome back!) to the newly-revived Discworld Book Club! We've been covering the City Watch subseries (Previously: Guards! Guards!, Men at Arms, Feet of Clay, Jingo, The Fifth Elephant, Night Watch) but are currently detouring over to some of the "Industrial Revolution" books (Previously: The Truth) because we need them for context in the City Watch books and also they are flippin' awesome in their own right. As such, the next book will be Going Postal.


Polly Perks is on a mission. She's a barmaid from a small town in Borogravia, and her sweet but simple brother Paul has gone off to join the war effort, and he needs someone to watch over him. Plus, if the worst should happen, as a woman she's ineligible to inherit the bar, so she needs him to keep being alive.

Borogrovia has a lot of rules like that. A small, prideful country made up largely of non-arable crags, it has long been devoted to the god Nuggan, whose gospel is quite literally a living testament, constantly filling itself up with new "abominations" such as "women dressing up in men's clothes" but more recently "chocolate", "the color blue", and "babies." Nuggan has plainly gone mad or worse, and the populous of Borogravia instead largely prays t "The Duchess," the ancient, reclusive, likely dead ruler of the country whose portrait adorns seemingly every room in the country.

Borogravia has always been at war with Zlobenia, and if not them than with Mouldavia or one of their other neighbors. Warring is what Borogravia does. They never give up, and as far as anyone in the country is concerned, they're never not winning. Their latest border dispute has led to them tearing down Clacks towers which they claim sit on Borogravian soil, which means Ankh-Morpork has to get involved now, which means Sam Vimes has to get involved now. Which means William de Worde and the Ankh-Morpork Times have to get involved now. And Borogravia is facing not just supply line issues or morale issues or desertion en masse or imminent starvation (though they are certainly facing those as well). They have massive PR problems.

So Polly chops off her hair, dresses like a man, works out her walk and bad manners and such, and runs off to a nearby town where nobody knows her so that she can enlist under the name "Oliver." There's a giant ornery bear of a Sergeant named Jackrum, a weaselly bully of a Corporal named Strappi, and her fellow recruits - the last recruits Borogravia can spend any time and resources recruiting in this war, in fact:

There's Maledict, a quick-witted vampire, Carborundum, a troll who can't handle his drink, Igor, an Igor, Shufti, who can cook, Tonker and Lofty, an inseparable pair in the "big guy/little guy" tradition, and Wazzer, the quiet religious guy who ends up going crazy. They are soon enough put under the first-ever command of Lieutenant Blouse, a decent man in many ways, and a clever man in many others, but an Officer by training with no grasp of military realities. In other words, a true Rupert.

Borogravia has lost. They just can't admit it to themselves. A lot of people are arriving to help them with that. But Polly and her compatriots still have some surprises in store....
posted by Navelgazer (17 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
This is one of my personal favorites, up there with Going Postal (our next entry!) But I'd last read it years ago. I forgot how unbelievably goddamn bleak it is. Because the unrelenting bleakness of Borogravia is the source of so much gallows humor here. And, of course, it sets up the larger theme that there's no situation so bad that those in power can't at least make it worse for women. I chuckled out loud at one point and then realized a moment later that I was laughing at a joke about comfort women. Not a mean-spirited one, of course, but that's the sort of context here. Shit is bad in Borogravia.

This of course leads up to the scene with Tonker and Lofty in the kitchen dungeon. Perhaps no scene in Discworld has stuck with me more than that one, just a primal scream from characters whose lives have been nothing but horror and who can barely even hope for anything better to come. And then of course there's Wazzer, for whom this trek through the worst that humanity has to offer has been the best time in her life, because this company is the closest she's ever had to anyone giving a shit about her.

Jingo goes into war, but not like this. Night Watch gets dark, but not like this. And lots of these books go into the stupidity of lords in the high command, but for me this is a cut above them all. This is Peak Discworld, or very near it.
posted by Navelgazer at 9:23 AM on March 30, 2023 [13 favorites]

Igor, an Igor

Shoot, and all this time I've been assuming it was Igor, not Igor. My mistake.
posted by Greg_Ace at 11:54 AM on March 30, 2023 [5 favorites]

Shoot, and all this time I've been assuming it was Igor, not Igor. My mistake.

Yeah, it's Igor, but Igors are pretty forgiving about that, so no harm no foul.

(Though of course it's actually Igorina. Did they ever address the inconsistency here with what we learn in The Fifth Elephant, that seemingly all Igors are male and tend to be very desirable to eligible young women in Überwald, having "very attractive" daughters? Or did Pratchett just decide to change that up on the fly?)
posted by Navelgazer at 12:05 PM on March 30, 2023 [2 favorites]

I recently reread this book while having an absolute all-timer devastating period and I gotta say... in a world populated by vampires and trolls, [spoilery denoument] for however many decades is THE most implausible fantasy element in all of Discworld.

But I love this book, for all it's incredibly dark (and it really is). The ending of Jackrum's story makes me cry every time. Pratchett is really unparalleled in his ability to have his characters end up in a place where they can be who they are, however unexpected or unconventional that might be.
posted by babelfish at 12:13 PM on March 30, 2023 [5 favorites]

Loved this. Incidentally, in the atypical Discworld book The Last Hero (it's profusely illustrated by Paul Kidby and can be thought of as a sort of greatest-hits medley), you get to meet Nuggan, and he really is that sort of god.
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:29 PM on March 30, 2023 [2 favorites]

Or did Pratchett just decide to change that up on the fly?

Where's a Continuity Supervisor when you need one?
posted by Greg_Ace at 2:30 PM on March 30, 2023 [2 favorites]

Youtuber Shaun's video Hijacking the Dead? Terry Pratchett & the Trans "Debate" features this book heavily.
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 2:41 PM on March 30, 2023 [2 favorites]

I love this book sooooooooooooo much. It's another one of those almost-Shakespearian jigsaw puzzles where everything. just. fits. (I recognize a sense of narrative inevitability as one of my narrative kinks, by the way. It's a me thing; it's not everyone's thing.)

The socks extended metaphor is great. The Borogravian national anthem (and the observations on anthems in general) split my sides, and added "the new day is a great big fish" to my regular vocabulary. Corporal Strappi, the little weasel, is the perfect little weasel -- shit-stirring in all the wrong ways. (In case someone else missed this, because it took me many rereads to realize it: the name is most likely intended to be pronounced like the Britishism "stroppy.") Maledict's anticipatory Vietnam PTSD works. All the different signifiers of femininity/masculinity that the characters talk about vis-a-vis their species and their life experiences -- just a brilliant reiteration of how arbitrary yet stringently enforced gender stuff is. Vimes and de Worde offer useful outsider perspective on the funhouse/charnel-house that Borogravia is.

And I have a fondness for Lieutenant Blouse, total rupert that he indisputably is. Pratchett makes sure that the narrative refuses to dismiss him entirely, demonstrating that he does have useful skills and knowledge, just not in the form of the stereotyped war skills that Jackrum exemplifies. (This, I think, is how this book fits into the Industrial Revolution series? Jackrum's always fighting the last few wars, and Blouse shows where war is going.) And Blouse even forces Jackrum to (implicitly) admit the use of what he knows! It's a character-driven tour de force, the whole hilltop scene. And the description of Jackrum triumphant is chilling. Jackrum is funny and sympathetic and also terrifying, which is a hard tightrope to walk and Pratchett walks it perfectly.

Okay, I gotta stop talking about Jackrum or we'll be here all day. Sergeant Jolly Fat Man / Sergeant Incandescent is my favorite character in Discworld, bar none.

To babelfish's well-taken point: It might actually be easier to get away with it in a professional milieu awash with blood anyway. (It's also history that some have managed it. We'll never know how many, of course, but we do know about a few.) But yeah, it's a wrinkle Pratchett either didn't think of or chose not to address. Another use for socks, maybe? (Well-washed, please.)

And I really appreciate Pratchett kicking against benevolent-sexism-style "well, if women ran the world it would be better because women are Nice and Nurturing Mothers" in this book. Yeah. No. That ain't how gender works. That ain't how anything works. Every single character in Discworld makes deliberate (though constrained by circumstance) choices about whether and how they're gonna be decent people. Decency is not essentialist in Discworld; there is no gene for it. And I agree with Pratchett about this as strongly as I know how.

I don't read war books, usually. This one is supposed to owe a lot to All Quiet on the Western Front and similar. Any war-book readers here want to talk about Monstrous Regiment in that context? I'd appreciate your insights.
posted by humbug at 3:37 PM on March 30, 2023 [6 favorites]

This was the book that convinced my then-girlfriend-now-wife that there might be something to these Discworld books that I was obsessed with. She's the one with the degree in early modern English literature, so she clocked the title from across the room and said "what the hell is that?" (For those who may not know, the title is drawn from a pamphlet by John Knox about how female monarchs were contrary to god and nature with the so-bad-its-good title The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstruous Regiment of Women)
posted by firechicago at 3:50 PM on March 30, 2023 [3 favorites]

humbug: I read it as fitting into the Industrial Revolution series 1.) Because it's set in motion by how the Clacks have changed the world such that destroying one of those towers means that Ankh-Morpork now needs to get involved in a country they were perfectly happy to ignore for centuries prior to that point, 2.) Because de Worde/The Ankh-Mopork Times play a supporting role in how everything unfolds, and 3.) Because while in this case the industry is the Military, this story is about it finally changing to meet the times. But it might just be a case of "We don't know where to put this but it has de Worde and the Clacks in it, so..."

And yeah, Strappi is an all-time piece-of-shit. One of those people who couldn't imagine making a friend anywhere but sees societal and institutional rules as something he can "win" at. Just the worst.
posted by Navelgazer at 3:59 PM on March 30, 2023 [1 favorite]

I haven't read this since it came out, but I very nearly gave up on Discworld after this book and Thud! (which I also found pretty tedious with a scene, the naked mud wrestling, that I found deeply objectionable). The core conceit of this book is very obvious if you're familiar with Pratchett's mind (or look up what the title means), because it's the natural extrapolation of Polly Polly-Olivering to get into the military, and Borogravia being terminally fucked up is also pretty obvious if you understand how gods work on the Disc and see that every house is worshipping Borogravia's royalty. To my memory, it felt like Pratchett ran out of ideas halfway through and had to bring in William de Worde to make things interesting again. I don't recall it really doing anything with the regiment once it's established, it's a joke that goes nowhere, and it's hard to imagine how you could make it relevant given the book is trying to make a point about how in this circumstances gender is irrelevant.

I'm a different person now and maybe I'll find more to like about it when I get around to re-reading it, but we'll see. I do think this is where Pratchett's decline started, with Going Postal a wild outlier, but I look at the other books released around and after that, and even the ones I liked I have to admit are missing something.

It's also history that some have managed it. We'll never know how many, of course, but we do know about a few.

I have heard of plenty, which is why this archetype exists across cultures. I've also heard of plenty of historical examples of women living full lives as men outside the military, including getting married to women.
posted by Merus at 5:49 PM on March 30, 2023 [1 favorite]

This is the first Discworld book I read (and I had been told about them but many people I trust, but this was the book where I got it from page 1). I love this book, I reread it all the time and get so much from it. Its bleak but there is such humour too. This is one of his best books in my opinion.

I do think this is where Pratchett's decline started

I couldn't disagree more because the Tiffany Aching series starts just before this book and continues on after it and I will fight anyone who doesn't love the Tiffany Aching books (with a fry pan and third thoughts of course).
posted by Lesium at 1:59 AM on March 31, 2023 [8 favorites]

Re: war fiction: as someone who’s read all of the Hornblower books (CS Forester, Napoleonic naval fiction) and most of the Sharpe books (Bernard Cornwell, Napoleonic army fiction), this felt very much like a Pratchett riff on that type of story. Maybe this was signalled by the cover art featuring Our Heroes in typical redcoat garb, but w/e.

A recurring theme of those books is Our Hero struggling against bureaucracy, inept management, and scarce resources to both achieve the army’s overall goal AND best his personal opponent, who is always very Strappi-like.

For the record: absolutely a favourite.

I will fight anyone who doesn't love the Tiffany Aching books (with a fry pan and third thoughts of course).

AND MY AXE shoot wrong fantasy series, nuts, [rummages through scattered papers, comes up empty handed], calls out to the room, “does anyone have the reference I’m looking for here?”
posted by TangoCharlie at 10:20 AM on April 1, 2023 [4 favorites]

This didn't stick in my mind as particularly memorable, other than the spoilery reveal that everyone was the spoiler thing. But the comments here have changed my mind. I'm going to reread it now a few years later, and a few years into my post military now civilian life and see how that change effects my reactions to the book. You have all inspired me to give this one a second chance.
posted by seasparrow at 8:56 PM on April 1, 2023 [2 favorites]

Possibly my favorite Discworld book - dark and unsentimental but still filled with hope and jokes.
Re: the title - I'm about to share a Great Moment in Parenting with you. Please pay attention.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 9:02 PM on April 1, 2023 [6 favorites]

I've just re-read this and agree about the bleakness (particularly the ending) and some of the plot messiness / doing nothing much with the journalism angle. I'm not sure that I agree that Strappi = stroppy, and not sure that "stroppy" would be a good adjective for the character. Assumed the name was another of the clothes references. (A comment in the Tor re-read agrees.)

The time in the castle seems to drag a bit. And the sense of time / pacing is a bit odd generally. I think Polly thinks something when they're in the castle about how it's only been a week since she enlisted - feels like a lot longer.

Agree that it's pleasing that Pratchett doesn't dismiss Blouse's apparently non-military skills.

One of the things I did like was the way Maledict's revelation near the end is seen as a bit pointless by Polly by that time. The character has missed out on making this interesting because they've chosen to stand aside from the sharing the other characters have done.
posted by paduasoy at 2:42 AM on July 21, 2023 [3 favorites]

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