Superficially, the big difference between early Discworld novels and later ones is that the humor in the early ones is broader and more cartoonish. This often meant that the satire in each novel would either be on point or miss by a mile, regardless of how many belly laughs the story itself offered. The trend began to shift to a more mature satirical approach with Small Gods, and now that we're well nestled in the 21st century, Pratchett's stature as not merely a humorist but a fully-rounded novelist is ironclad. This is simply a fine story that delivers comedy and pathos in servings entirely appropriate to its subject: the stupidity of war and the senselessness of strident conformity to ideology. Sprinkle a little "chicks kick ass" garnish into the mix, and you have a feast Discworld fans everywhere will savor.
Our heroine in this installment is plucky young Polly Perks, who works in her family's tavern in the tiny country of Borogravia, a place with a Napoleon complex if ever there was one. Borogravia's state religion is the worship of Nuggan, a god with an annoying habit of adding to his list of Abominations on an almost weekly basis (recent additions: rocks and accordion players). Most Borogravians, tired of trying to keep up with all of this, direct their worship towards their venerable Duchess, a mysterious figure whom no one is entirely sure is still alive.
Polly is afraid of losing the family business once she comes of age, as the idea of women owning businesses is one of Nuggan's many Abominations. The only thing to do is seek out her not-too-bright brother Paul, who has enlisted in Borogravia's army to fight one of its nonstop wars — this one against neighboring Zlobenia. Disguising herself as a boy, she enlists all too easily, a finds herself in a ragtag troop called the "Ins-and-Outs" whose other enlistees (among them a troll and a vampire), she quickly learns, are also disguised girls with their own various reasons for joining up. The problem is that Borogravia is hopelessly losing its war, despite official statements to the contrary. Paul may be captured or dead. And Borogravia's nonstop futile acts of aggression have drawn the attention of other, more powerful cities and nations, like Ankh-Morpork. World opinion is not favorable.
But a chance encounter seems to turn the tide for this monstrous regiment. When they unexpectedly get the best of a Zlobenian patrol — led by their very own prince, whom Polly kicks in the groin — their reputation spreads. And soon, it looks as if all of Borogravia's falling morale is getting a wholly out-of-proportion boost, aided not a little by the unctuous interference of journalist William de Worde.
Some folks have said that this novel is Pratchett's commentary on the Iraq War. I think that is partially true, but not the whole scope of his satire here. (After all, this book came out the same year the invasion was launched, so Pratchett had to have begun it the year before at the very least.) Certainly, passages about Borogravia's flying in the face of world opinion and aggressive arrogance ring very timely in terms of global reaction to the Bush invasion. But Borogravia itself, a pipsqueak little country with no industry and fewer resources, can't really be said to be an analogue of America; the only thing noticably American about Borogravia is its religious irrationalism.
But there's also a bit of ye olde British Empire in Borogravia as well. And the book's commentaries on sexism, while hardly revolutionary, provide Pratchett with plenty of comic fodder. Furthermore, such elements as the role of the media in world affairs, and the habit governments have of spinning comforting lies to their populace in times of crisis, are universal, not simply limited to America or any other one nation.
What made Monstrous Regiment most satisfying to me, however, was not so much its satirical barbs — though this book has as many laugh-out-loud moments as any of Pratchett's best — as Pratchett's approach to character. Once we've gotten past the initial joke of girls getting away with bad disguises to become soldiers, Pratchett confidently goes on to turn Polly and her cohorts into real people (or trolls, or vampires — ah, you know what I mean). Each member of the regiment has a story, some of them funny, some quite sad, and as their seemingly futile march continues, what keeps them together is that growing bond soldiers in the field develop. A band of sisters, so to speak. Led by the requisite greenhorn lieutenant and gruff but paternal sergeant, Polly and the rest of the "Ins-and-Outs" get a chance to show their quality, regardless of what Nuggan might abominate. Pratchett has a remarkable facility for working moments of real poignance into his comic scenarios that is often imitated, but never duplicated.
And it is this quality of Terry Pratchett's — his skill at putting satire and story on equal footing — that keeps him at the top of the heap among fantasy's humorists. While Monstrous Regiment is imperfect and goes on a little long — the book comes close to overplaying its hand in a protracted court martial scene towards the end — it still stands proudly in the front lines of one of today's most enduring series. Battle-hardened but as full of piss and vinegar as ever, the saga of Discworld marches on.