An installment in my ongoing Complete Discworld Reread…
An army on campaign is a sort of large, portable city. It has only one employer, and it manufactures dead people…
Monstrous Regiment is a novel about a young girl, Polly, who runs away to join the army, in order to find her brother. To do so, she has to pretend to be a man. No spoilers there, that’s all dealt with with admirable succinctness on the first page. She meets up with fellow recruits, a jolly old recruiting sergeant and his nasty little corporal, and heads toward the front, as they gradually realise that their nation – beloved Borogravia, in yet another war with the dastardly swede-eating Zlobenians – is losing very badly. In some respects it is an ambitious book: as well as taking on war and nationalism again, it’s yet another assault on organised religion (a return for the ghastly deity Nuggan, last seen in The Last Hero), as well as an extended exploration of broad themes of feminism as well as narrow themes of gender roles, transgenderism/transvestitism and so forth; and for good measure it’s also a chance for Pratchett to show off his beloved Vimes yet again.
Have I said ‘again’ a few times already? I had to laugh when I saw the strapline on one edition of this book, which proudly promises: Discworld is at war… again! Oh good, the punters doubtless think on seeing that. Jingo was so startlingly original I’d just love to read Pratchett going over that ground yet again…
Unfortunately, the weariness you may hear in my voice is also there in Pratchett’s. It must have been so hard at this stage for him: on the one hand, he didn’t want to just repeat himself, and yet at the same time he didn’t want to alienate his fans by doing anything unexpected. At times in this book it feels as though he’s just going through the motions, telling the same jokes he’s already told before… only this time, they’re broader and bigger and flatter and more predictable, like a tired old comedian doing his thirty-first rendition of a famous stand-up routine. It’s tired, it’s old, and it’s lazy. That’s there in a lot of the jokes, a lot of the set-ups, a lot of the voices. It’s there is most of the commentary about states and the little guys, about war and the nation, death and glory, about religion. We know what you think about these things, Pterry! But this time, he just shouts them louder in case we didn’t hear before. The officers are stupider, the wars more pointless, the gods are pettier, the penalties for cross-dressing are less kind. We have the church, which Pratchett tore apart in Pyramids, and Small Gods, and a little bit in Carpe Jugulum; we have the army, which Pratchett took on in Jingo and to some extent in Night Watch, not to mention snipes in books like Pyramids and Eric and Interesting Times and so on; we have an unconventional line-up of recruits including a woman, a troll and a vampire, echoing the woman, troll and dwarf recruits who signed up in Men at Arms; speaking of which we have the unconventional vampire, seen before in Reaper Man, and Carpe Jugulum, and The Fifth Elephant, and The Truth (and actually, there are two here, because Otto from The Truth comes back); we have the agricultural backwaters of Mort, Reaper Man, Soul Music, Equal Rites, and to a lesser extent Wyrd Sisters, Lords and Ladies and Carpe Jugulum; and we have the precocious smart young girl who just wishes everybody else weren’t so stupid, previously seen in Equal Rites, Soul Music, The Wee Free Men, and arguably the other Witches and Susan novels. Oh, and we have Vimes and Angua popping in for a bit, and William de Worde, and Lord Rust, and…
This could feel like a greatest hits album. It could be brilliant. But unfortunately it feels more like a muddle: a repetitive, unsurprising muddle.
A large part of that may be because this doesn’t feel like Pratchett doing a Discworld Greatest Hits tour. Instead, it feels like Pratchett really wanting to write an entirely unrelated novel – maybe not even a Discworld novel at all? I haven’t read them yet, but I think there may be echoes of this in Dodger and Nation – and feeling forced to throw in lots of stuff we’ve seen before to prove that it’s What We Wanted.
And that’s a great shame, not because it makes for a terrible book, but because the other book, the book it could have been, if he’d started from scratch and done something new, at times feels like it could have been a seriously good book. It takes quite a long time to get going, and the ending is severely handicapped by the gimmicks that Pratchett commits to, but for a span in the middle there, you can forget about all the other books, and be intrigued by what he’s doing.
When the story is in full-flow, it’s a good story. Unfortunately it is hemmed in both with Discworld features that don’t really make sense and with an undermining gimmick that explodes the most meaningful scenes with overly broad humour.
It really doesn’t fit. For one thing, the novel is clearly set in the Victorian era – everyone is wearing redcoats and shakos and following officers named Rupert, in service of a monarch who is quite clearly Queen Victoria in virtually no disguise whatsoever. And then you have Vimes and Angua wandering around in mediaeval breastplates. You have injuries and tactics that make you think of muskets and cannons and even machine guns, and you have allusions to Vietnam, but then Pratchett remembers that nobody has firearms of any kind, so they have to have… supercrossbows, and megacatapults. And he wants to have his cake and eat it too, so not only do Borogravia and Zlobenia directly parody the European wars of the 18th to 20th centuries, they’re also the subjects of Ankh-Morpork interference that parodies both Victorian colonialism and modern well-meaning interventions around the world (the shadow of Iraq is heavy on the book). Which is a bit thematicaly confusing, particularly when the backward natives, Our Heroes, feel like a more modern society than the still-strongly-mediaeval-tinged Morporkians. On the other hand, because Pratchett has allowed his Morporkians freedoms not present in Victorian England, he’s left thematically and tonally completely undermining his own story: we’re meant to get invested in the struggle for women to be taken seriously in their own right, through the case study of the struggle for women to join the army without having to pretend to men, but all the time this historic progress is being pushed we have Angua wandering around in the background. Nobody actually says outright “oh, we can’t possibly allow women in the army, their heads would explode from all the thinking! Unless they’re Morporkian women, who manage to do this all the time, including the second-in-command to the leader of the entire Alliance!” but it’s hard not to think it. Actually, saying it would help. Pratchett could have addressed this problem directly. He could have had the Borogravians specifically associate women’s rights with Morporkian imperialism. Or he could have taken the chance to point out that Victorian women’s (lack of) rights were not the inheritance of time immemorial (women of earlier generations had had more rights), and that societies more primitive in one respect may be more advanced in others. Instead, the problem just hangs there unsaid.
[It may be intentionally. It’s mentioned several times that the feminist crusade sometimes charges at a door only to find it already open… maybe having Angua hanging around casually having all the rights that the Borogravian women are fighting for, and this not being important in any way to the plot or worth mentioning by anybody, is meant to illustrate that point. But if so, say so! As it is, Angua’s role is so minor (pointlessly minor, frankly, and I say that as an Angua fan – there’s no reason for her to be here) it feels much more like an oversight resulting from smashing together two different stories that aren’t meant to fit together]
Actually, that’s true of Vimes as a whole. In a sense, this is a direct sequel to The Fifth Elephant. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way Vimes had his novel stolen from him, and he’s left floating around the periphery generally being a distraction and having little to do with anything, thematically, that the book is about. ‘The Vimes-as-diplomat-again’ novel collided with the ‘Victorian feminism and the military’ novel, which never really belonged in the same world.
Meanwhile, although Pratchett does make his musings on equal rights and gender roles and so on a little more nuanced than you might expect, there’s still something weird about reading a book-length lecture on the importance of treating men and women equally from an author who peppers the very same book with really old-fashioned ‘have you noticed how men are like this but women are like this’ jokes. Much of the humour of the novel, or attempted humour, is based on the apparently ludicrousness of women pretending to be men when we all know that, for instance, women are physically incapable of swearing. I mean, there are times when I’d accept jokes like ‘women-are-both-thoughtful-and-cooking-obsessed-so-whenever-there’s-cooking-to-be-done-they’ll-always-magically-have-half-an-onion-on-their-person’ as not really being harmful, and playing authentically on experiences of mothers many of us have had, but when it’s in the middle of a women-are-just-like-men-really story it’s just… weird. Not, I should point out, that there’s any misogyny in the book – quite the contrary. The main difference between men and women continually observed throughout is that women are people, whereas men are either bestial troglodytes or gormless cretins.
However, I should acknowledge one thing here: Pratchett has, via time travel, been reading my reviews. Because in my last Discworld review I wandered off on a long-gestating old-women-aren’t-always-that-great grumble about how ‘patriarchy’ isn’t just carried out by men and how the iron-willed matriarchs Pratchett idolises are the ones who send the young women to the Magdalene Laundries for violating their moral views. There’s a bit of that idolisation still present here: it’s suggested, for instance, that women never want their sons to go to war, that’s just a myth created by men – which, to say the least, is optimistic thinking from the author, I fear. But Pratchett here does finally include a section on how reactionary and oppressive old grannies can be (now that Granny herself is safely out of the picture), and specifically talks about them sending young women to the Laundries! Seriously, he was clearly time-reading my review. [Several characters in this novel have been what are effectively in the Laundries, right down to the prominence of laundry, though they’re not actually called that here].
And throughout it all the humour is always two sizes broader than it would have been in earlier books. So in the past he might have named the Duchess’ capital ‘AlbertHansWilhelmsberg’; here, he names it ‘PrinceMarmadukePiotreAlbertHansJosephBernhardtWilhelmsberg’. Previously his mad gods might have issued commandments against chocolate, so here they also issue commandments against the existence of rocks. Everything is made bigger and bolder so you can’t possibly miss it. [Although I will admit that the constant repetition of the word ‘Abomination’ does gradually become amusing in its own right]. It’s not just the jokes, either. In another book, Polly might be looking for her not-so-bright brother… whereas here, her brother has to be made out to be some sort of barely-functioning idiot savant. You know, to drive home the pathos.
But it feels wrong for me to be harping on what’s wrong with this book. Because at times, and in ways, this is near the top of what Pratchett can produce. There are some great lines. There’s a successful evocation of the setting, even if it’s a setting that doesn’t quite mesh with the rest of Discworld – it feels like he’s been reading a lot of Victoriana. In particular, it feels like he’s been reading a lot of Kipling – it made me think a lot of “The Drums of the Fore and Aft” – only Kipling does it better. The protagonist, Polly, is created very simply but effectively – and is a much more rounded and likeable character than Esk or Tiffany or Agnes, her most obvious predecessors. Sergeant Jackrum is one of Pratchett’s greatest characters, and feels definitive of a type. The actual plot parts are told very well.
It’s no surprise that bits of it are good. The last adult Discworld novel before this was Night Watch, arguably Pratchett’s magnum opus, and that ability didn’t just vanish overnight. But the thing is, Night Watch felt like an ending – more than that, it felt like a coda. Monstrous Regiment is what happens after a man has ended his life’s work. Part of it is trying to drag the done thing out again, churn out one more hit, do it all one more time, when the inspiration has gone and the jokes have all been told – while part of it is trying to do something new, without the confidence that the new thing will be accepted.
I think part of the problem is that when Pterry loses confidence, or doesn’t know what to do, he falls back on broader comedy. When really what novels like The Fifth Elephant, Night Watch and now Monstrous Regiment seem to shout out is that maybe at this stage of his career maybe he needs to make the transition to more serious writing, to fall back on his grasp of character and plot. Because when Monstrous Regiment is telling that story about the girl who dresses up as a boy to join the army in a fruitless war, and comes within the ambit of a red-blooded but cynical old sergeant, then it manages to be a really good book, and funny too. But when it loses faith and leans on the pratfalls and the silliness and the Big Shocking Funny Revelations (that are predictable from the first page), then it feels tired and rote and forgettable.
I want to finish, though, by mentioning a line from very near the end of the book, because it says a lot. It says:
“The enemy wasn’t men, or women, or the old, or even the dead. It was just bleedin’ stupid people, who came in all varieties. And no one had the right to be stupid.”
That’s just… it says so much about Pratchett. It shows his gift for cutting through things, his gift for pithiness. His dedication to frankness. His universality, his can’t-let-the-bastards-grind-you-down cheerful cynicism… his humanity. His skepticism toward all forms of ideology, and in particular anything non-universal, anything sectional or factional. His tolerance and mercy – after all, someone being stupid isn’t evil, they’re just in need of a good explanation of why they’re in the wrong.
Unfortunately, it also shows why sometimes this liberal, humanist, anti-authoritarian dissenter can sometimes feel like a condescending bully and an apologist for tyrants. Because if you disagree with Pratchett, you’re stupid, and someone ought to force you to be smart. And more than that – if you’re responsible for anything bad happening, it must be because you’re stupid. The problem is, while a knack for simplifying is good, some things can’t neatly be simplified beyond a certain point.
I think this is why Pratchett seems so liberal and likeable on the level of individuals… and why his politics become increasingly confused when he strays into big picture thinking. It’s also an increasing problem in his later work, as he becomes quicker and quicker to slot people into the “stupid; and nobody has a right to be stupid” category.
Anyway, Monstrous Regiment. Doesn’t know what it wants to be – a mishmash of different books, in several different ways. Some really great work, and some sloppy, lazy work, and some big missteps. In its defence, though, it probably works better if you haven’t read 30 of his novels in the last few years before reading it?
Adrenaline: 3/5. At times, this is quite exciting. Unfortunately, that excitement is hamstrung by a very slow beginning, a rather prolonged end, and a pervading sense of security. This is a Girl’s Own adventure: there is an odd juxtaposition between the background ruminations on the savagery of war and oppression, complete with nasty details, which is maybe as dark as Pratchett has ever been, and the central storyline, in which we know that the protagonists will never face any real danger, and are probably unlikely to have to do anything particularly unpleasant to anybody either. It’s another example of this book being two books: in this case, a dark and bitter assault on man’s iniquities, combined with a YA adventure story that evokes in me words like ‘larks’ and ‘japes’…
Emotion: 2/5. There’s little threat, as I say, and little development, and frankly little engagement with the characters at all. I like Polly… but I never really found myself caring about her, or indeed about anything else – the dark moments are too brief and second-hand to be affecting.
Thought: 3/5. The novel does Raise Issues, and to Pratchett’s credit he does suggest the answers are at least one step more complicated than they might at first appear. But there’s never really any sustained inquiry, or thematic complexity. That assumption I quoted: that the enemy are only ever “stupid people” demonstrates the novel’s fundamental lack of open-mindedness and curiosity.
Beauty: 3/5. It’s polished and professional – but too much so. There are little diamonds, but too few, and there are too many clunky and obvious things.
Craft: 4/5. That said, while Pratchett’s taste may questionable in places, and his plan for the novel either confused or over-ambitious, and his strategy sometimes lazy… his execution is reliably admirable.
Endearingness: 3/5. I love this novel. I also can’t stand it. Monstrous Regiment is always two books supernaturally superimposed… and I love one and I hate the other. I’m not sure which is which exactly.
Originality: 2/5. Most of the elements here are familiar both from the wider literature and from Pratchett’s own earlier work, though there are still occasional moments of distinctiveness.
Overall: 5/7. GOOD.
I want to say it’s one of his best novels, and I also want to say it’s one of his worse – I’ve seldom been so torn about a book. When it’s going well and you’re in the mood to ignore the issues, it really is great; when you’re not in the mood, and you’re in the less great parts, it’s… well, actually even at its worst it’s not a bad novel, by the standards of novels, but there were moments when I did feel it was a bad novel by the standards of Pratchett.
It feels like a novel by somebody who is straining at the bonds, who has grown to a point where they need to break out of their old tracks and do something new: it has both that tiredness and that ambitious energy. Something new!
…so next up it’s the second Tiffany novel, and after that it’s back to Ankh-Morpork again, for Sam Vimes’ tenth and eleventh appearances… (after that, he’ll only be in another five more novels…)
Incidentally, my Discworld reviews are now nearly 66,000 words long in total. That means… they are now longer than The Light Fantastic itself (the shortest Discworld novel, not counting Eric and The Last Hero, which are illustrated novellas). By the time I get to the end, I’ll probably have written as much as Small Gods. Fortunately, I’m unlikely to make it to the heady, bloated heights of Unseen Academicals, all 140,000 words of it…