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Monstrous Regiment

Terry Pratchett

Harper Collins

US Hardcover First

ISBN 0-060-01315-X

Publication Date: 09-30-2003

353 Pages; $24.95

Date Reviewed: 10-08-03

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2003



Fantasy, General Fiction, Science Fiction

10-22-03, 11-08-03, 06-14-04

There's a lot to be said about Life In These Interesting Times. The conflicts and issues that swirl around us seem as pressing as ever, the march towards Apocalypse seems undaunted by threats of good or evil and humans continue to demonstrate their ever-growing talent for finding and exacerbating trouble. Terry Pratchett knows that straight talk isn't always the best way to get to the heart of any matter, be it issues of gender identity or our willingness to march to war to defend the honor of those not wishing to have their honor defended. As oppositions grow more entrenched, as positions harden and ossify into bony structures over the eyebrows that turn pundits and politicians alike into something remotely resembling an assembly of Neanderthal men, straightforward discourse on subjects of merit tends to bounce off the most brilliant men and women like dung hurled by chimpanzees at gaping zoo-tourists. Perhaps a different mode of discussion is required. This dung hurling will serve no good purpose.

When reality rolls over and dies, it's time to haul out the fantasy. If this world has become so unbearable to experience that it can't even be reasonably discussed, then we ingenious humans need to invent another world that's totally ridiculous but about which we can talk like the reasonable men and women we all know ourselves to be. Terry Pratchett has been busily building that world for more than twenty years, and his latest novel of Discworld, 'Monstrous Regiment' will enable all of us to have good laugh and maybe even experience a coherent thought or two without frothing at the mouth, or having to listen to someone else do so. We all know how screwed up everything is, and so does Pratchett. His latest novel begins as the tiny and rather mad country of Borogravia runs out of steam -- and able-bodied young men -- to fight its latest war. Because the border of Borogravia and its neighbor Zlobenia is defined by a river that changes course regularly, some structures built in what was once Zlobenia find themselves on the wrong side of the border after a heavy rain. Since these structures are "an abomination unto Nuggan", Borogravia's local crackpot god, it's war. Polly Perks is desperate to find her slow but patriotic brother, who went to war but has not returned. She cuts her hair and signs up with the Monstrous Regiment.

Pratchett has a field day with gender identities, religious intolerance, the absurdity of war and asterisk-marked asides. Given that this is Pratchett's 30-something-est Discworld book, those who have read the previous thirty-something books will probably have an upper hand when reading this one. But as someone who has not read every single Discworld novel in chronological order (though I now intend to do so in the fullness of time), I found it perfectly comprehensible and constantly delightful. Pratchett combines low humor, puns, and general silliness with sly socio-political commentary. It all goes down a treat, and yet proves to be nutritious as well as delicious. Pratchett achieves his satiric strength by using broad strokes to create characters we can easily identify, if not identify with and then piling on the broad strokes until readers realize that they were not broad at all. Detail and precision are perfectly apparent, but only in hindsight. Coming through the novel the first time round, readers have too much fun enjoying the humor and the pointy sticks underneath to be bothered with all that skillful writing stuff.

But Pratchett is incredibly skillful and constantly in total control of the language and subtext. Now, this subtext is the kind of subtext that's really rather large and lumpish, easily discerned beneath the stream of humorous prose. But that lumpish subtext does the job just as well as any subtlety, and actually in most cases better. Returning to what I was on about earlier, once you've suckered a whinging, intolerant audience of loud-mouthed shouters into your fantasy world, you really do have to sort of bonk them on the head to make your point. And in your fantasy world, you can bonk them on the head; that's the point of fantasy. Bonking the bonkable in reality is a shortcut to jail time, and while most of the bonkable certainly deserve it, if you're the one doing the bonking then as it happens in reality, you end up in the clink, not them. And that doesn't serve you, them or the fine ideas you were trying to promote one bit. No, it's much better to tell a silly joke with a sharp point, have a nice laugh with the opposition debating team, and send them home to scratch their heads late at night and wonder if they really got it. And when they do really get it, they can be embarrassed in the privacy of their own home, on their own time. When next you see them they've been converted into the paragons of virtue you knew they could be. Or if not, at least nobody got hurt in a way that required them to fill out an insurance form.

With 'Monstrous Regiment', Pratchett makes some very serious points amidst some very serious laughs. His characters are the key. Everyone, even the most despicable zealot is somehow likable. Polly and her crew prove to be surprisingly resourceful and then Pratchett lays on the surprise until you think this damn wedding cake of shock is going to either reach into heaven or fall over on the audience. It does a bit of both. Coming up from under the frosting, the reader can only grin and be glad Pratchett uses the finest ingredients to bake his cake. Pratchett's 'Monstrous Regiment' is fortunately far more durable than any pastry, no matter how towering. Even better, it's recyclable. Pratchett writes the kind of books you can look forward to re-reading. If, that is, you ever get them back from the members of the loud-shouting opposition debating team you loaned them to. If not, then there will be another one along soon -- but not soon enough.