Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett. ★★★★★
Monstrous Regiment was the first book in the Discworld series I ever read. This stand alone Discworld novel got me hooked on the series and has been a beloved favorite of mine for many years.
Monstrous Regiment takes the classic trope of a girl disguising herself as a man to join the army and runs wild with it. The nation of Borogravia has been at war for as long as anyone can remember. The country is falling to pieces, but the army is still soldering on. Polly Perks’ brother has disappeared into the war, and she’s determined to find him and bring him home. To do so, she’ll need to masquerade as Oliver “Ozzer,” a disguise completed by a well placed pair of socks.
She joins a squad of the last few recruits Borogravia could scrape up, led by the legendary Sergeant Jackrum. This unusual band soon finds out Borogravia is on the edge of collapse and the war is not even close to being won.
“The little countries here fought because of the river, because of idiot treaties, because of royal rows, but mostly they fought because they had always fought.”
What I love about Monstrous Regiment is that it takes the Polly Oliver trope and uses it to create a confounding situation full of reversals and reveals that both questions and criticizes gender roles. A highlight of the book is when Polly disguises herself as a washerwoman and isn’t believed to be a woman by male guards because she doesn’t fit the stereotypes and expectations they have of what a woman is.
“Besides, she thought as she watched Wazzer drink, you only thought the world would be better if it was run by women if you didn’t actually know many women. Or old women, at least… Whenever there was an execution, and especially when there was a whipping, you always found the grannies in the front row, sucking on peppermints.”
Monstrous Regiment also destroys the myth of the “exceptional woman” who “isn’t like those other girls.” Polly may very well be awesome, but this is a book filled with amazing women of all sorts.
Of course, I do really love Polly Perks. She’s brave and smart, and most of her success comes from her from her logic and planning and ability to think on her feet. She’s funny and capable, and she’s one of the few female protagonists I’ve come across who does not even have a trace of a romance plot.
“A credit to the women of your country. We’re proud of you. Somehow those words locked you away, put you in your place, patted you on the head and dismissed you with a sweetie.”
In short, Monstrous Regiment is a truly great and hilarious book that explores war, religion, and gender roles with a cast of tremendously amazing female characters. I cannot recommend it enough.