Monstrous Regiment (Discworld Volume 31)
by Terry Pratchett
In the remote country of Borogravia, war is the national pasttime. The problem is that lately Borogravia has been as successful at war as the Detroit Lions are at football. Like desperate countries everywhere, though, they claim they're winning, despite the evidence to the contrary.
Because of all this war, villages are pretty much down to the elderly, children, and women. One of these women named Polly Perks decides to cut off her hair and join the army so she can find her brother Paul, who disappeared years earlier in the war with neighboring Zlobenia. She soon joins a regiment (really more of a squad) with other young people including a pyromaniac, a potential psychopathic killer, and schizophrenic, as well as a troll, a vampire, and an Igor--the latter being one of those hunchbacked assistants to mad scientists everywhere.
Though of course Borogravia is winning the war (wink, wink) there's no time to train the new recruits in warfare. But before they can get to the front, they come under attack from Zlobenian forces. Polly uses all her cunning to defeat the enemy, but from then on this monstrous regiment is on the run. Their only hope is to retake their country's stronghold and free the prisoners inside, including Polly's brother. To do so, though requires the regiment to put themselves in great danger from the enemy--and their own superior officers.
In "Jingo" Pratchett took on war from the perspective of the invader. Now in "Monstrous Regiment" it focuses mostly on the defender. The key point is that Polly and the other Borogrovians are not bad or evil. They're just doing their job and defending their country--and each other. It's the ones in charge, like the insane god Nuggan or the never-seen Duchess, who are the bad ones. That's good to remember because in any war there's a tendency to demonize the other side so that they seem like demons instead of real people. Otherwise it would be hard for a country to want to go to war and kill other humans not so different from them.
Though I'm sure this was unintentional, the conflict between Lieutenant Blouse and Sergeant Jackrum reminded me of Mailer's "The Naked and the Dead." In both the inexperienced young officer thinks he's in charge while the sergeant thinks he should be the REAL boss because of his experience and the officer should just be a figurehead. Things go much better for the lieutenant in this book though.
While Borogravia and Zlobenia sound more like the Balkans, there are references to the second Iraq war with the term "shock and awe" and the concept of embedded reporters. That allows readers to easily relate to the story, despite the presence of fantasy elements. William de Worde and Otto the vampire photographer of "The Truth" (Volume 25) make a cameo as the aforementioned embedded reporters while Sam Vimes and members of the City Watch also appear in the story.
The one knock I have on this book is one that I've had on a couple other of the Discworld ones. Sure there's a vampire, troll, and Igor in the regiment but they don't really contribute much to overall story. Actually the vampire and troll sit out most of the conclusion. Other than the vampire's jitteriness at needing coffee (to keep him from draining people's blood) that allows for a couple of Vietnam allusions predating "Tropic Thunder", he doesn't do much and the troll does less. At least the Igor serves as the medic. They could easily have not been in the book and it wouldn't have affected the story much. The example I used before was it's like having a few pieces left over after putting together a jigsaw. The pyro, schizo, and even the psycho all have their uses in the story, but the most monstrous characters seem just there to make the jacket sound more interesting. A pity.
Still, this is a good book with humor that doesn't dumb-down it's very non-humorous subject matter.
Join me now in a verse of "War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothin'!"That is all.