Monday, September 15, 2008
Warning : here be spoilers.
I was on a Pratchett jag recently, so I picked Monstrous Regiment up from the library. The book began promisingly, with Polly Perks disguising herself as a man so she can join the army to look for her brother, who has already been conscripted. Women can’t join up because this is “an abomination to Nuggan”, though the god Nuggan seems to find pretty much everything an abomination these days.
This was a good start, especially since Polly’s love for her brother is warm and believable. I was immersed in the story. Polly signs up along with a lot of other raw recruits, including a troll and a vampire, and a gruff sergeant takes on the work of whipping them into shape - a task made a little more difficult by the fact that they're losing the war.
So far so good. Then one of the other recruits anonymously approaches Polly to say that her disguise would be more convincing if she stuffed a pair of rolled-up socks down the front of her trousers. Polly realizes that the other recruit, whoever that is, must be female too.
And that’s when the story began to fall apart, because they all turned out to be female. One after another, bing bang boom, including the troll, the vampire, the sergeant and even the generals of the army (the weedy lieutenant was the only one to escape). It got to the point where I could see and dread each revelation before it occurred. When Sam Vimes, Otto Chriek and William de Worde showed up for their cameos, I was very relieved, not only because they’re great to read about but because I could be reasonably sure that they weren’t going to pull rolled-up socks out of their trousers and declare their femininity.
I don’t know what this was meant to accomplish. Striking a blow for women’s rights is admirable, but to have nearly every character turn out to be a woman in disguise was just… unbelievable. The message gets buried under the surprise - not surprise at the revelations, but surprise that the same thing is happening over and over. It’s also very difficult to suspend disbelief. I just might have been able to buy all those disguised women as new recruits, since the ongoing war left a shortage of men, but as generals of the army? Not likely.
The periodic unmaskings (Wazzer’s a girl! So’s Maledict! And Jackrum! And the Igor!) call so much attention to themselves that they detract from the plot of the story, and when I sat down to write this, I realized that I couldn't remember the names of any of the places. Is war bad? Maybe so, for most of the novel, but at the end of the book Polly signs up again as a sergeant. And wouldn’t you know it, the new grunts she has to beat into shape are disguised girls. It just wasn't funny any more - or an insightful comment on gender politics either.
Speaking of the humor, there was a hilarious moment where the lieutenant’s horse bites Polly in the socks. Polly’s fine, but the lieutenant faints. Other than that, most of the amusement came from the gender issues, e.g. a whole regiment of women trying to belch, fart and walk like men. After I finished this, I reread the brilliant Small Gods and I might write happier reviews of Going Postal or The Truth, but I can't recommend Monstrous Regiment.