I have been excited to get to this book since I first started this project. Monstrous Regiment is, to my mind, one of the best Discworld books and is tied with only one other to be my favorite. It is also, in my opinion, one of the “quintessential” Discworld books. If a person asked me “if I were only going to read one Discworld book and I wanted to get the whole gist of the thing, which one would it be?” I would say Monstrous Regiment.
Some people might be surprised by my answer. Not Guards! Guards! or Night Watch? Not Mort or Hogfather or Going Postal? No. Monstrous Regiment. Because it is, to me, the emotional mean of all of the Discworld books. Some of them are funnier than others, some of them are darker than others, some are more parodies of genre conventions than others. Monstrous Regiment is all of it. And also, almost every single character is female. Yes, even those ones.
Monstrous Regiment is about a girl named Polly who disguises herself as a young man to join the army and find her brother who had enlisted previously. Tale as old as time, right? Well, you see, this particular war had gone on so long that nearly all of the young men had already gone off to war (and many of them had died doing so). Over the course of the book, it’s revealed that not only is Polly’s entire regiment composed of women (including a troll, an Igor (Igorina), a vampire, a pregnant girl, and a lesbian couple), their commanding officer, Sergeant Jackrum is too. And so is most of the upper brass of the military.
I’ve written previously (almost two years previously) about my love for the Sweet Polly Oliver trope, but this book takes it to the very best possible extremes. You see, one of the common tropes that most frequently goes hand-in-hand with Sweet Polly Oliver is “Women are Wiser”. In this type of story, you find it in the message that we wouldn’t have wars (or at least not so many pointless ones) if women were in charge. It’s what is generally referred to as benevolent sexism, where the portrayal is subjectively positive, but actually harmful in broader terms (compare the idea that all Asian people are good at math). The idea that there would be less violence in the world if women were in charge is often accompanied by the idea that it’s because women are more fragile or less ruthless or less cunning or less ambitious than men are.
This book completely destroys that idea. The women in the upper echelon of the Borogravian military are no less bloodthirsty, no less vengeful, no less set in their archaic ways than a man in a similar position would be. Because women are capable of everything that men are – good and bad. Too often “feminist” works are called so because their female characters are something close to perfect, and usually extremely good. I’d argue that women are no less complicated and no less conflicted than men are, and I think portrayals of women in fiction should respect that. Noelle Stevenson has some great tweets and tumblr posts about letting girls be monsters too (and this is reflected in her book Nimona, which I highly recommend to literally everyone I know), and upon rereading Monstrous Regiment, I see it here too.
There’s a great balance in this book between the characters and their growth, and the comedy, and the expected horrors-of-war plot. The coffee-addicted vampire and the continual revelations of “…another one?” balance with the very much constant losses that all of these people have suffered because of the never-ending war. It’s only a one-shot, not the start of a new series, and we never see these characters again. I find that fairly upsetting, because you just come to love them so much over the course of this one book. A ragtag band of misfits becoming a family is one of the fastest ways to my heart, and that – more than anything else – is the emotional center of this book.
“Good evening, gentlemen! Please pay attention. I am a reformed vampire, which is to say, I am a bundle of suppressed instincts held together with spit and coffee.”
“The little lesson that life sometimes rams home with a stick: you are not the only one watching the world, other people are also people, while you watch them they watch you, and they think about you while you think about them. The world isn’t just about you.”
“There was an old, very old Borogravian song with more Zs and Vs in it than any lowlander could pronounce. It was called ‘Plogviehze!’ It meant ‘The Sun Has Risen! Let’s Make War!’ You needed a special kind of history to get all that in one word.”
(on the theatre) “‘It’d take too long to explain, dear child. People pretending to be other people to tell a story in a huge room where the world is a different place. Other people sitting and watching them and eating chocolate.’
‘I would like to eat chocolates in a great big room where the world is a different place.’”
“‘Did you bring a weapon, Magda?’
‘No item of any sort with a certain weapon-like quality?’
‘Anything, perhaps, with an edge?’
‘Oh, you mean this?’
‘Well, a woman can carry a knife, can’t she?’
‘It’s a saber, Magda. You’re trying to hide it, but it’s a saber.’
‘But I’m only using it like a knife, Polly.’
‘It’s three feet long, Magda.’
‘Size isn’t important, Polly.’
‘No one believes that.’”
“Caring for small things had to start with caring for big things, and maybe the world wasn’t big enough.”