November 2003

Tom Bernard

fiction

Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett

After her brother goes missing in action during the Duchy of Borogravia’s war with neighboring Zlobenia, barmaid Polly “Oliver” Perks cuts her hair, trades in her apron for a pair of secondhand trousers, and joins the army to search for him, violating at least a dozen of her country’s restrictive religious edicts in the process. As the last recruits into Borogravia’s losing war effort, Polly and her fellow soldiers (including a troll, an Igor and a vampire that’s traded in its bloodlust for the taste of a steaming hot cup of coffee) under the leadership of a low-level bureaucrat turned field commander and a sergeant who embodies the word “redoubtable,” and abetted by a zealous journalist, become symbols of an indomitable Borogravian spirit, much to the chagrin of enemies and allies alike. Since this all takes place against the backdrop of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, you just know there has to be more to the story.

When it comes to long-running series, there are two basic approaches creators can take. Some choose to establish a basic formula and repeat it with limited variation through book after book after book. Writers of mystery series (and their brethren in the techno-thriller domain) regularly, and perhaps inevitably, fall into this camp. These novels follow a predictable and expected pattern: crime occurs, detective uses their trademark insight, brute strength or septuagenarian guile to wade through the lies, evasions, bullets or patrician secrecy that stands between them and the truth. While the motive, opportunity and weapon of choice varies from outing to outing, the process invariably feels as familiar -- and to the fans, as comfortable -- as a weekly catechism.

Other writers attempt to broaden and develop their chosen worlds with each subsequent book. They introduce new characters, new locales and new perspectives through their narrative choices. Fantasists, broadly speaking, tend to avail themselves of this greater freedom to innovate. While their worlds can be just as formulaic as those of their hardboiled counterparts -- an eldritch or militaristic threat that shakes civilization to its very foundations necessitating a desperate quest undertaken by a small cadre of stoic archetypes being the default conceit of at least 75% of the fantasy on bookstore shelves -- the genre as a whole is more forgiving of attempts to confound expectations. These worlds, as constructs of the writer’s imagination, are less rooted in reality, and have more malleable borders. To put it another way, Dennis Lehane’s Boston, while slightly different from the real city by virtue of the addition of a neighborhood or two here and there and other subtle changes made to conform to the demands of his stories set in the city, are nevertheless limited in their variation by the fact Boston is a real city with its own consensual reality.

The Discworld, on the other hand, is only limited by the boundaries Terry Pratchett dictated for it in The Colour of Magic. Within these limitations, and those delineated in subsequent books, he has unbridled physical and notional territory to explore. He has, effectively, unlimited space and freedom to flesh out the world he created and continues to maintain.

Thus, the world of Monstrous Regiment, Pratchett’s twenty-ninth Discworld novel, benefits from all the development the Discworld has experienced under Pratchett’s stewardship in the preceding twenty-eight books. By the same token, the Discworld is so big that there remain plenty of unexplored corners harboring countless story opportunities. This means that Borogravia, which was mentioned in earlier Discworld offerings, is enough of a blank slate to play host to the story Pratchett chose to tell this time out.

One aspect of this multi-volume evolution is that the Discworld, which began as a comic send-up of Fritz Leiber stories, has become decidedly more rich and varied than the source material from which it arose. While Pratchett can still coax reactions ranging from a smile to a full belly laugh from his characters’ situations, he is equally capable of turning a critical, revelatory eye on both the Discworld and the real world it parallels.

Indeed, that’s the thing about good humorists. If they keep at their craft long enough, satire and mockery may become insight and empathy. Where they began by poking fun at the problems of the world -- laughing that they might not cry instead -- observing the full range of human nature on display behind their jokes can, perhaps must, give way to frustration, anger and the desire to speak out directly against that which they were once content to lampoon. Such insight entails a sacrifice. The danger with indignation, however righteous, is its kinship with pedantry. There is a fine line between frustration and bitterness, and better writers than Pratchett -- most notably Mark Twain -- have ventured deep into the territory on the far side of that line as their writing evolved.

Fortunately, while Terry Pratchett skirts the borders of dogmatism with his revelation that war is hell, he’s restrained enough to keep the sermon entertaining and engaging. There’s very little subtlety in his message, but the voice and style he’s established throughout the Discworld saga carries the message over the rough spots. In Monstrous Regiment, this means turning his satirist’s sensibility on sexism, religion, politics, journalism and of course the military life, a life in which the reality on the ground bears very little resemblance to the patriotism and nationalism espoused by those prosecuting the war.

While this last point seems especially plangent in light of current events in the Middle East (and these events are almost certainly reflected in the timing of Monstrous Regiment’s publication), the book seems modeled more on the experience of Europe, especially the central and eastern nations, in the era leading up to the First World War, the events and conflicts of which continue to reverberate throughout the region to this very day. Seen in this light, he’s exploring territory previously visited in All Quiet on the Western Front, The Mouse that Roared and, of course, the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup.

One consequence of the reality of Monstrous Regiment is that Pratchett’s stable of familiar characters is largely marginalized. While Sam Vimes and the Ankh-Morpork City Watch put in brief appearances, they are by no means central characters. Even Death, that Discworld mainstay, is limited to one brief appearance. Of course, in a story about war, Death’s presence is implicit in every page, so perhaps including more of Death personified would be redundant.

Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett
Harper Collins
ISBN: 006001315X