Saturday, January 05, 2008
And This, My Little Lads, Is How You Handle Stereotype. Or Archetype. Or Whatever Those Types Are.
One night at dinner I described Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett to a couple of family members.
"This girl wants to find her brother who had enlisted in the army so she disguises herself as a guy and enlists, too," I began.
A family member said, "That's been done."
"There's this really tough sergeant," I went on.
"That, too," he said.
"And an officer who doesn't know what he's doing."
All of which is true. These are all elements that have been used in fiction before. It's what Pratchett does with them that's so terrific.
Monstrous Regiment is one of Pratchett's Discworld books, but you don't need much knowledge of that series to enjoy the book. (That's the difference between a series and a serial, my little lads.) I didn't totally understand the politics of the war that was being fought, but it didn't matter. What was going on in young Polly's regiment was engrossing enough that I didn't care about the bigger picture. Polly is in a regiment of brand new recruits, among them a troll, a domesticated vampire, and an Igor, which appears to be a zombie of some type. The zombies here are very adept at sewing and medicine, meaning they are a whizz at sewing body parts back on. They're even good at sewing on spare parts.
Are these "monsters" what make the regiment monstrous? Hmmm.
Polly's sergeant, Sergeant Jackrum, assures his recruits over and over that they are his little lads and he will take care of them. It appears that ol' Jackrum has been taking care of little lads for decades. Generations. This guy goes way past your run-of-the-mill screaming and spitting sergeant to become the stuff of myth and legend. At one point while I was reading the book, I wondered if he didn't have some kind of connection to hell. He should have been forced out of the army because of age long, long ago, but he's fought everywhere, knows everyone, and more than a few people owe him.
He is one incredible character, and Pratchett is always revealing something new about him.
Our lieutenant is as inept an officer as you could ever wish to find in a book, but he's saved from becoming a one-dimensional stereotype by his flashes of compassion and technical knowledge. Of course, it's not military knowledge, but you have to give a little respect to a man who knows anything at all and isn't afraid to put on a dress.
Except for the trolls, domesticated vampires, Igors, and the occasional werewolf, Monstrous Regiment reminded me of the historical fiction I enjoyed as a teenager. I read an array of hissyfic (none of it of an improving nature) but what I really liked were books about long ago young women who had adventures. The American Revolution and Civil War were good periods for girl adventures, but nothing beat the Napoleonic Wars for a time period when a young woman could find herself stumbling onto battlefields, fighting off stray soldiers, or doing a little spying.
Monstrous Regiment seemed like a takeoff of the books I was reading years ago, with a far better heroine who has no interest in ending up with a guy, the way so many of the heroines in my old books did. Oh, no. Our Polly can do way better than that.