Monstrous Regiment

I will declare my bias here and now – I adore Terry Pratchett, and have done for years. I’m afraid you will find little of objective critique here, just unabashed admiration. If you haven’t yet met him and the world of characters he has created, I highly recommend them to you. In my mind, they are the perfect read for a young clergy-woman’s precious leisure hours.

Pratchett’s most famous books concern the Discworld (so called because it is truly a disc, moving through space on the back of four elephants, standing in turn on the back of a giant turtle.) It is a world peopled by wizards, dwarves, trolls, witches, werewolves and vampires.

But for all its fantasy, it parallels our own world in many ways. Their world, too, is undergoing rapid technological advance, but in their case, it is pictures painted instantly by imps, and information travelling rapidly by means of ‘the clacks’ – a series of semaphore towers stretching across the continent. I think it hard to characterise his books – others think of them as fantasy and comedy, but he is more than that. Pratchett is profound without pretension. His sense of humour is delightful and as Neil Gaiman writes of his own work “the mirror of fantasy, … can sometimes show us things we have seen so many times that we never see them at all, for the first time.”

Pratchett is also fascinating on the subject of religion and faith, and deeply insightful. In Small Gods, a character says, “I was told it was the finest thing to die for a god.” Another responds, “You can die for your country or your people or your family, but for a god you should live fully and busily, every day of a long life.” In the Discworld gods occasionally walk among us, their existence is never doubted, but their reliance upon people is fuel for some deep theological reflection.

The books about the witches are some of my favourites, and contain many valuable reflections for a young clergy woman. In fact, once you’ve devoured Monstrous Regiment, I suggest getting stuck into Wyrd Sisters or The Wee Free Men. From the young witch struggling to be taken seriously in her professional life, to their reflections on sitting with people at the boundaries of life – there is so much in these that resonates with my calling — but I’m making them sound so serious! I read these books for the joy of reading, the humour, the delight in invention, the wonderful characters of this fantastic world.

But I was meaning to write about Monstrous Regiment. To some extent it stands alone, you needn’t have read all the other books for it to be a great read. While some old friends like Vimes play roles around the edges, the book centres around Polly Oliver in the impoverished country of Borogravia, perpetually at war with its neighbours, but running out of young men to send to die. They are Nugganites, a religion heavy on the Abominations, and so short on compassion all the people tend to pray to their Duchess instead. The Holy Scriptures are in a ring-binder, so that new Abominations can be added on the end. As Sam Vimes says “So what we have here is a country that tries to run itself on the commandments of a god, who, the people feel, may be wearing his underpants on his head.” Throughout the book I am prompted to ask myself all sorts of questions, like do we sometimes make it seem to people that the best you can hope for as a Christian is not fullness of life but rather constant guilt over petty infractions? Do we present God as an angry little man, getting furious over trivial and arbitrary rules?

But back to the plot. Polly joins the army disguised as a boy, becoming a part of the monstrous regiment of the title. The squad share “The Secret” and much of the story is about friendship, and how we can achieve more than we ever thought possible with the help and encouragement of others. It is also an exploration of war, gender and popular religion. But that’s not the reason I read it over and over – it is a fantastic novel, with a cracking pace, intriguing and complex characters and a wonderful central premise. Perhaps what I like best about Pratchett’s characters is that he often lures you into thinking they conform to some stereotype, only to discover inner depths in them you didn’t expect. I don’t want to give anything away, so there’s not much more I can write, given the twists in the plot start quite early, and my favourite parts of the novel concern those twists.

I read this book over and over. It is my ‘comfort food book.’ Each time I reread it, I am equally amused and inspired. So read a book that not only makes you laugh out loud but also makes you proud to be a woman (even when people ring the rectory obviously expecting a bloke) and strengthens you to make things better for the girls currently in the pews who will one day fill our shoes.

2 replies
  1. Diana
    Diana says:

    Hear, hear! I am also a huge Terry Pratchett fan and greatly enjoyed devouring Monstrous Regiment this past summer. Pratchett is my go-to author when I need some reading that is on the lighter side — though, as you point out, he always has a way of luring me into more thoughtful territory. I like to think of his genre as “fantasy satire.” Small Gods remains one of my all-time favs. Can’t recommend it enough. Thanks for the article!

  2. rohit
    rohit says:

    Must be an enjoyable read Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett. loved the way you wrote it. I find your review very genuine and orignal, this book is going in by “to read” list.


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