Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett is the story of Polly Perks, who in the method of young women all over fantasy, disguises herself as a man and changes her name to Oliver in order to join the army and find her brother. This being Terry Pratchett jolly hijinks ensue.
There will be spoilers below.
It soon becomes obvious that Polly’s not the only woman who has decided to cross-dress in order to join the army. Over the course of the book she discovers that all but one of her regiment are women; each with their own goals and reasons for enlisting.
While the story is Polly’s and told from her point of view I found one of the secondary characters the most interesting.
Sergeant Jackrum is the Sergeant who recruits Polly into the army, a decorated war-hero with over 60 years experience in the military. He initially comes across as something of a buffoon but it quickly becomes apparent that beneath the tobacco chewing drunkard exterior there’s a man who’s “steeped in deviousness, cunning and casual criminality.”
He’s extremely protective of his ‘little boys,’ as he calls the recruits, looking out for the weaker members of the unit, while not shying away from pushing those he knows are stronger to reach their full potential. (While I say weaker, every single one of the characters has a point where their individual talents shine.)
He makes the difficult decisions that the others cannot. When the regiment has captured an enemy soldier, in enemy territory, Jackrum is the one who realises that taking a prisoner with them will be a liability. Jackrum manipulates his own troops, ensuring that the prisoner will try and escape and then shoots him when he does so.
By the end of the book, all the women of Polly’s regiment have publicly revealed their genders, and the military leaders are trying to decide what to do with them. Despite the fact they single-handedly saved all of the officers, and have undoubtedly turned the tide of the war, they’re considered an embarrassment.
They’re given a number of choices; the first is to leave the military with a generous severance package which they refuse. Then they’re offered the chance to return to disguising themselves as men, which again they refuse. Polly wants more than that; she wants to be able to serve as a woman, openly, in the military without having to hide who she is. The officers aren’t willing to grant that.
Then Sergeant Jackrum steps in, sending away two thirds of the officers and addressing those remaining in the room. At that point he reveals that a third of the command, including the General, are women. He calls them out on their prejudice, on using their positions of power to discriminate against their own. But he does so in private, just to each-other, threatening to tell the world their secret if they don’t give the women a chance to serve in the army as women. And he calls in the favours they’re due him, all that he’s done to help them, the times he’s risked his life and the feats of great endurance he performed.
So they finally reach the arrangement that Polly, and the rest of her regiment, can continue to serve in the army as women, if they choose to. The officers themselves say that they’re far more comfortable continuing as they have and aren’t ready to be outed and that too is respected.
It’s not a neat and tidy ending. There’s still a great deal of progress to be made. The women are initially brought along just as mascots and a novelty, but the book wraps up with Polly, using every bit of cunning Jackrum taught her, determined to make greater changes.
I did find certain aspects of the book uncomfortable and it’s certainly not perfect.
Terry Pratchett uses fantasy races and the racism they face as an allegory, instead of having people of colour in the book. There’s the elephant in the room of using women in the military as an allegory to GLBT in the military.
The most prominent relationship in the book is between two women, but they get very little page-time compared to the other characters and there is rape in one of their back-stories. I hate the whole gay because of rape trope which permeates fantasy and I wish that it had been avoided here.
As soon as Polly discovers any character is female she starts referring to them by their female names and using female pronouns. Now, for the most part that’s to be expected. It’s a humorous book after all and for all the exploration of gender it’s certainly not a book about being transgender.
It gets distinctly uncomfortable near the end of the book, after it is revealed that one third of the commanding officers are female. Some whom have spent the majority of their lives, living as men, and who have explicitly stated that they have no desire to come out as it were. In spite of this, they are referred to by female pronouns and Polly uses their female names. She makes the assumption their experiences must be the same as her own.
But despite that it’s still a book that I enjoyed. It’s a book that has one of the most interesting gender-queer characters that I’ve read.
Because of course, Sergeant Jackrum, is more than just an ally, looking out for ‘his little boys’. In his own words.
“Same old story. I was a big strong girl, and… well, you can see the picture. The artist did his best, but I was never an oil painting. Barely a watercolour, really. Where I came from, what a man looked for in a future wife was someone who could lift a pig under each arm. And a couple of days later I was lifting a pig under each arm, helping my dad, and one of my clogs came off in the muck and the ol’ man was yelling at me and I thought: the hell with this, Willie never yelled. Got hold of some men’s clothes, never you mind how, cut my hair right off, kissed the Duchess, and was a Chosen Man within three months.”
It was a twist that I expected since it was the main reason I picked up the book and it didn’t disappoint me.
One of the aspects I enjoy about Terry Pratchett is the lack of the usual sort of romance plot. Even Betty, who joins the military to find the father of her unborn child, comes across as doing it more for practical reasons than out of love. But the ever so masculine Sergeant who takes care of them all throughout the book, he’s the one that’s the cliché, who enlisted for love. It is a wonderful inversion of what is usually portrayed. It would have been far too easy to write him as a sexless person who had always been undesirable and I appreciated that that route wasn’t taken.
The word ‘fat’ could not honestly be applied to him, not when the word ‘gross’ was lumbering forward to catch your attention. He was one of those people who didn’t have a waist. He had an equator. He had gravity. If he fell over, in any direction, he would rock. Sun and drink had burned his face red. Small dark eyes twinkled in the redness like the sparkle on the edge of a knife. Beside him, on the table, were a couple of old-fashioned cutlasses, weapons that had more in common with a meat cleaver than a sword.
I think his description is great too. It’s so very different from the usual, beautiful, cross-dressing woman who is irresistible as a man to even the most straight men which often plagues the literature. Or even the androgynously handsome looks of the likes of Commander Ambrose from Maria V Snyder’s books.
Unlike all the other characters, Jackrum never reveals what his previous name was and that in itself is telling. With all the other characters, their names are revealed and it’s a sign to start switching the pronouns to female. Sergeant Jackrum doesn’t get that treatment.
He’s fat, he’s a liar, he’s devious and vicious, loyal and heroic and there’s absolutely nothing he wouldn’t do for ‘his boys’. He’s a layered, superbly flawed individual who is far more than just his gender and serves a function other than being a punchline to a joke.
I think he’s a fantastic character and while Monstrous Regiment isn’t a perfect book it is one of my favourites.