Sir Terry Pratchett has been around a while. The writer of the world-famous “Discworld” fantasy books has more than forty novels in this universe.
I have been re-reading them in publication order and have gotten most of the way through. I’ve just finished “Monstrous Regiment” and there is little doubt that this is one of Sir Terry’s standout books. He has moved through at least three major shifts in writing by the time he wrote this one and the result is a well polished novel asking questions that don’t get in the way of a story.
In this novel, Sir Terry revists a topic he seriously explored in “Small Gods”. Namely, that of how much believers confer power on a god. In that book, it was Om who had but one believer left, Brutha, and the novel was a story of that one believer’s journey. The god and his one believer managed to get tangled up the highly ambitious Vorbis the Exquisitor who only believed in his own power. In “Monstrous Regiment”, Nuggan has lost all of his believers. So instead, the Borogravians pray to the long secluded and likely deceased Duchess. This means she has become the unwilling intermediary for him. And since most of the prayers she hears is about the survival of the essentially devastated country, the Duchess eventually finds a way to influence events.
But “Monstrous Regiment” is also about a topic explored way back in “Equal Rites”: that of gender equality. We know from the outset that Polly is a girl masquerading as a boy in order to join the army. What we don’t discover until later is that the little ragtag bunch of recruits is all girls. And then the wonderful reveal in the climax that the army is riddled with women, all hiding that fact from everyone else. And just Polly discovers at the end that Seargent Jackrum is, in fact, a grandmother, not a grandfather.
It is in a kind of coda to the story that the army makes it entirely okay for woman to join, which is actually fairly progressive thinking for the Discworld. Especially so for a country out towards Uberwald. However, Terry has been experimenting with this for some while, particularly with Angua in the Watch in Ankh-Morpork. It helps that Sir Samual approves of this and this is probably why he’s not surprised at Polly, either. Actually, the appearance by Sir Samuel, acting in his role of watchman of the world, is appreciated and highly effective. Without him and his humble watchman’s skills, Ankh-Morpork is just as capable of making such problems worse as better. In fact, he is rather essential.
(It was also interesting see Angua put in an appearance without the narrative shifting to her point-of-view. I wonder how much Terry wrestled with that decision.)
However, “Monstrous Regiment” is not just about the power of belief and gender equality. It is also a story about patriotism and army-life and sheer bloody-mindedness and bullying and propaganda and … The book covers a lot of ground and does it well. As only a master story-teller can do.