For me, the major perk of being a reviewer is getting free books (it sure as heck ain’t the paychecks). I especially like it when they include press kits with interviews, blurbs, and so on – it makes me feel like such an insider. And the copy of Monstrous Regiment that I received couldn’t have pleased me more if it had been designed specifically to stroke my ego. Across the front, it says, “Advance Reader’s Edition – NOT FOR SALE.” On the back, it has some marketing schmooze and details about the promotional campaign, instead of the usual vapid puffery from other authors. And inside, the copy is riddled with spelling errors and anxious, bracketed little notes-to-self (“[note: check text w/copy ed!]”). How can I resist all the behind-the-scenes glamour? I’m an Advance Reader!
But enough about me. This is the story of Polly Perks, a sassy young bar wench who’s sick and tired of slaving away at her father’s pub. Her brother Paul should be helping, but he’s not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer; it’s always been understood that the burden of running the place will fall to Polly after her father retires. And Paul isn’t around, anyway – like most of the men of Borogravia, he’s been conscripted into an ongoing, pointless us-against-the-world war that’s dragged on for years and shows no signs of slowing. Paul doesn’t mind – he’s enchanted by the romance of medals and valor – but Polly has seen too many mutilated soldiers coming through her pub to let the same sorry fate befall him. What’s a girl to do but steal her brother’s oversized breeches, give herself a man’s name, and enlist?
Much to Polly’s chagrin, she’s almost too convincing at being a boy; once she’s shorn her locks and put on pants, nobody seems to have any qualms about her gender. Until nightfall, that is, when a shadowy figure intercepts her in the privy, pressing a pair of mock-cock socks into her sweaty hand to help fill out her trousers. Somebody knows she’s a girl, but who? And will they give her away? Polly starts to watch her fellow fresh-faced soldiers very closely, and she notices some rather strange things indeed. Could it be that she’s not the only G.I. Jane around? And exactly how high up the ranks does this trend go?
As part of the army, Polly confirms what she has long suspected: contrary to the triumphant propaganda, the Borogravians aren’t winning. They’re getting slaughtered, and Polly’s company is the last one even bothering to recruit men anymore. What remains of their army is concentrated at one battle site, where they intend to make a glorious last stand assailing an impenetrable keep. Originally concerned only with finding and retrieving her half-witted brother, Polly slowly discovers a sense of loyalty to her fellow soldiers, and a bravery she didn’t know she possessed. Soon she’s wielding unlikely weapons and outwitting enemies with the best of ‘em, but the ultimate test of her courage will be admitting her true gender to her mates and accepting the consequences.
This is the most recent addition to Pratchett’s seemingly endless Discworld series, but since it mainly deals with brand-new characters, new readers won’t feel left out or confused. Captain Vimes of the Watch makes a brief appearance, as do several of his quirky underlings, but they don’t materially affect the plot, and mainly seem to be included as a nod to long-time readers looking for familiar faces. As a protagonist, Polly Perks - aka “Private Parts” – is more or less the straight man (well, you know what I mean), serving as a foil for her wacky compatriots’ loony antics. Still, she’s an engaging, believable mix of feistiness and fear, and, by far, one of Pratchett’s most realistic characters.
Pratchett’s in fine form this time around; the goofy puns and broad humor fly thick and fast, as does the social commentary. The Discworld’s version of an embedded reporter, William de Worde (whose journalistic exploits are detailed in The Truth), follows the ragtag band of soldiers around, reporting back on their military victories as the scruffy little company develops a fearsome reputation. A warmongering government’s weak excuses for battle, brutal casualties covered up with jingoistic misinformation, and the misogynistic military environment – nothing is safe from Pratchett’s keen eye and love of wordplay (and, as ever, the follies of Discworld’s citizens cast our own flaws back to us in painfully sharp relief). If you’re looking to enlist a fun, quick read with plenty of laughs, Monstrous Regiment is reporting for duty.