by Terry Pratchett
Series: Discworld #31
'Trousers. That's the secret...Put on trousers and the world changes. We walk different. We act different. I see these girls and I think: idiots! Get yourself some trousers!'
Women belong in the kitchen - everyone knows that. Not in jobs, pubs or indeed trousers, and certainly not on the front line.
Polly Perks has to become a boy in a hurry if she wants to find her brother in the army. Cutting off her hair and wearing the trousers is easy. Learning to fart and belch in public and walk like an ape takes more time. And there's a war on. There's always a war on.
Polly and her fellow raw recruits are suddenly in the thick of it. All they have on their side is the most artful sergeant in the army and a vampire with a lust for coffee. Well ...they have the Secret. And it's time to make a stand.
Monstrous Regiment has the distinction of being the first Pratchett book I just fell into. No fighting with the narrative, no initial struggle to follow what was going on. It all just worked from the start.
In spite of this, something … wasn’t missing so much as, I suppose, this was a different kind of story than I was expecting, based on my one Sam Vimes book so far. This was much more satiric than my first City Watch, and really, much more blatant a satire than any of the Discworld books I’ve read so far.
Between this book and Carpe Jugulum I learned something about myself: I love good satire about the ‘smaller’ things in life, like politics, academia, and social mores, but I struggle to embrace satire about the ‘big’ things like religion and world politics. I think there are some things that are too big or too complex, to be effectively satirised, no matter that they make themselves such easy targets with their outsized human fallacies. Of course I’m not an advocate for war, nor am I an advocate for religion-for-profit, or religion-for-power, but I don’t believe that all, or even most, governments eagerly search out reasons to go to war, nor most followers or seekers of faith and guidance are less than sincere – though I’ve met more than a few of the latter in my life.
Now that I’ve said that, though, I want to give all the credit to Pratchett for what I felt was his attempt to be brutally, objectively, honest about his satire in Monstrous Regiment. A cynical reader might start reading this book and think ah, here’s the sop to feminism just about every bestselling male author writes anymore. A cynical reader would be wrong — which delights this cynical reader to no end. Truely, this is a book about how women can do anything men can do – and do it better. Pratchett’s just honest enough to point out that isn’t always something to be proud of, and he does it in the most extraordinary way.
His bitterness towards organised religion is as apparent, and almost as scathing, here as it was in Carpe Jugulum, but there’s also what feels like a newfound acknowledgment of the power of faith. Towards the end, it feels as though the author is wrestling with himself through his characters about the importance of belief in something greater than oneself.
This internal debate felt apparent to me not just in matters of faith, but in matters of politics and government. Polly’s realisation that she must play an ongoing, active part in her country’s fate, that lasting change doesn’t just happen because people want it to, that it’s a process that is forever going forward and backwards, feels like it’s a truth that’s only starting to be considered, rather than a wisdom being imparted to readers.
Then again, what do I know? Maybe I was just seeing zebras instead of horses, and disappointed by the lack of ginger root and oxen. What matters is that it’s a damn good story, and a more obviously philosophical one than any other discworld book I’ve read so far.