Terry Pratchett, Monstrous Regiment (HarperCollins, 2003)

"'Do you think itís possible for an entire nation to be insane?' ... 'Not the people, the nation,' said Vimes... 'You take a bunch of people who donít seem any different from you or me, but when you add them all together you get this sort of huge raving maniac with borders and an anthem.'"
Israel/Palestine, perhaps? Liberia? Er, us?

Nope, itís Borogravia in Discworld. That is to say, yes, itís us. Our country, whatever that might be. Our world.

Monstrous Regiment is Terry Pratchettís latest adult novel, and itís even darker than his excellent recent young adult novel The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents.

I could suggest that this is because weíre living in dark times now, but Pratchett would reach out from between the covers and smack me if I did. The times have always been dark, heíd say, and if they didnít seem that way to you, they did to someone else. The times are always dark, and always bright, and always bursting with satirical possibilities.

Monstrous Regiment is a war novel, and though itís full of discomfiting reminders of present-day stupidities, its main thrust is about thirty degrees off-center from what one might expect. I hate to say what that is, because it will sound dire, but the truth is that itís about gender roles. War, gender roles, vampires jonesing for coffee, that sort of thing.

The country of Borogravia is afflicted by Nuggan, a God whose scriptures are in three-ring binders with blank pages at the end. This is so Nuggan, who would be writing crank letters to the editor if he wasnít a God, can make new Abominations appear whenever he thinks of one. Recent Abominations include cats, dwarves, and the color blue.

Perhaps as a consequence of everybodyís pent-up frustration with this, Borogravia is permanently at war with the neighboring country, Zlobenia. Itís going badly, and has been for quite some time. So when young Polly Oliver disguises herself as a man and joins the army, no one asks too many questions.

Pollyís rag-tag fellow soldiers include a suave vampire, an Igor whoís always willing to lend a helping hand or three, a troll, a Nugganatic fanatic, and a force of nature by the name of Sergeant Jackrum. They are soon nicknamed the Monstrous Regiment. If that phrase seems vaguely familiar, you will certainly remember the rest of it by the end of the book.

Monstrous Regiment has a Dirty Dozen assortment of bizarre characters who also seem real and familiar, a meandering plot marred by the shoe-horned-in presence of familiar characters from Ankh-Morpork, and an effective indictment of social ills.

Itís funny as hell, especially if youíve watched a lot of war movies or had slogans like "One blow, one kill" yelled at you by a sergeant or sensei. But itís more a serious novel that also makes you laugh a lot than a comedy that has serious bits. Reading it is an enjoyable experience, but not a comforting one.

But then, Terry Pratchett hasnít been an escapist writer for quite some time. Heíll amuse you, sure; but he wonít tell you that things are great just the way they are, or that theyíre hopeless and thereís nothing you can do. Heíll tell you that you -- yes, you -- should make them better.

And then heíll do something even more radical. Heíll make you think you can.

[Rachel Manija Brown]