Polly Perks is confronted with a dilemma. She's very bright and her mother has taught her how to read and write, which has become an Abomination Unto Nuggan, the local god. She tends her father's bar and understands the business, but in Borogravia --- ruled by the tyrannical god Nuggan and his human counterpart, The Duchess --- no woman can actually operate a business because that too is an Abomination Unto Nuggan. Art, music, jigsaw puzzles and rocks have also recently been declared as Abominations in a rapidly deteriorating country that is losing its war.
The trouble is that her brother Paul, the only legal heir to the lucrative pub, is off to the wars with neighboring Ankh-Morpork, who has been captured or is perhaps dead, so Polly's future looks rather bleak. Paul is a gentle soul by nature, an artist who of course can't practice his craft due to Nugganism and has no head for business. With him installed as legal owner … well, you see Polly's problem. She needs to find Paul, bring him home, and set him up as owner so she can secure her future --- or else it's the Workhouse (or worse) for Polly.
So she crops her hair, dresses up like a boy, and runs off to join the regiment. This is of course an Abomination Unto Nuggan, but Polly is nothing if not resourceful and with the quiet help of someone who whispers helpfully from behind a wall when she's relieving herself in the privy that a carefully placed pair of socks might fool the casual onlooker, Polly becomes Oliver Perks and her adventures begin. Polly, cum Oliver, takes her duties as a private seriously. When she finds herself feeling aggressive and even belligerent, she blames it on the socks. In fact, after cursing or belching she often thinks to herself, "It's the socks talking, there."
Her fellow soldiers in the Monstrous Regiment consist of (remember this is Discworld) a motley assortment of what's left of Borogravian young manhood: a Troll, a vampire, an Igor (Igors are a special class of being on Discworld --- they make excellent field medics because of their skills in stitchery and, er, recycling body parts). Also enlisted are three other young lads, all under the eagle eye of Sergeant Jackrum, veteran of legendary battles and the stuff folk songs are made of.
This extraordinarily amusing book is a homage to Terry Pratchett's huge following of well-educated women, which make up a surprising majority of his vast readership. In fact, until J. K. Rowling came along, Pratchett held something of a record in book sales in Great Britain, acquiring an O.B.E. in literature from the Queen. He has caught on in a big way with American readers who enjoy his droll satire. Only a few of the books in the 28 volume-series on Discworld feature women. The Wyrd Sisters (a group of erstwhile Witches), Angua (a female werewolf in Ankh Morpork's Watch) and Commander Vimes's wife are among the few female protagonists. With MONSTROUS REGIMENT, we are introduced not only to Polly Perks but also to some other rather astonishing heroines. Elaborating on them though would spoil the tale.
Pratchett has outdone himself with MONSTROUS REGIMENT --- a feat that might be hard to imagine after so many books. It is fresh, witty as ever, and brings a whole new look to Ankh Morpork. One might be tempted to compare this tale to our conflict in the Middle East, if one was of a mind to take Pratchett with more than a grain of salt.
Reviewed by Roz Shea on October 1, 2003