Mark Re-Reads ‘Monstrous Regiment’: Part 1

Hello, Discworld friends! I am happy that after talking with Phoenix (who commissioned the videos for the entirety of Monstrous Regiment) and shuffling my July schedule a bit, I’ve been able to give myself time to pull this off. And before I jump into the first re-read I have completed in YEARS (well, officially, that is, as I have re-read His Dark Materials at least twice on my own since finishing it), I did want to talk a little about the purpose of this. 

Trigger Warning: For talk of depression, anxiety

First of all, I don’t want this to come off as my attempt to have the “right” opinion about the book, as I imagine that that would seem rather condescending and patronizing. I can’t take back many of the things I said or what happened in the comments in the midst of this book. It’s also clear that there was sort of a perfect maelstrom of events, part of which is that Monstrous Regiment is really challenging as a cold read, that led to a disengaged reading of the book. When I was apologizing for my behavior, I reached out to Phoenix and asked if it would be cool if I attempted my first re-read of a book in a while as an addition to my apology. I wanted to give this book the attention that it deserved, and so, primarily, this is dedicated to Phoenix. Thank you for commissioning an ENTIRE book, and I hope you enjoy these.

I also wanted to wait until time had passed from my initial apology before opening up about why it may have seemed like I was distant during my read of this book. I felt it important to be present and accountable, to listen to people who I harmed, and to not distance myself from my behavior by making excuses. And this is not an excuse for it, either. I just wanted to open up a bit about what was happening behind the scenes so that I can give some insight and talk a bit more at the end of this post about what I’ll be doing in the future to make sure this does not happen again. 

I went into Monstrous Regiment enjoying it, loving how strange it all felt, and then being hit with an odd number of things all at once, which is now how I saw my summer unfolding. I did not expect to get edits back on Book #2 in May, only to have to turnaround of June 1, which meant that the time I had put aside for myself while on tour to read more of Monstrous Regiment was suddenly gone. I had organized my schedule so that right after tour was done, I could actually disappear for a few days. I knew that all the socializing was going to take a toll on me, AND I’d been working so hard without a break. But on top of that, I also got a last-minute request to record the audiobook for Anger Is A Gift, and that ate four full days, too. 

The point being: I went into tour knowing all my free time was gone. I met my deadline, rewriting my second book in 18 days (and regardless of what else I’ll say, I actually am quite proud of that), and then came home from tour to go right to BookCon. After a whirlwind two weeks, I felt better than I ever had in my whole life. I’d written a book! I sold a TON of copies! People liked it! I WAS LIVING THE DREAM!

And then that Monday morning hit, and I jumped right back into work, and I came down hard. My depressive episode lasted from June 4 until… pretty much a couple days after I posted my apology? It is the longest one I’ve had since 2010, and I was not at all ready for it. And I knew how bad it was, coming off the high of touring, and I knew I felt terrible, but I made a pretty big mistake here. What I should have done was tell y’all, “Hey, I’m stressed, can I take a mental health week and I will jump back into Mark Does Stuff next week?” But because anxiety and depression work so hard to turn my thoughts to the grimmest timeline, I convinced myself that if I just worked through it, that would be better than taking time off and risking all of you leaving and never coming back. 

Gods, typing it out is SO ABSURD because HOW DID MY BRAIN BELIEVE THAT. Well, when I’m in the midst of an episode, the world seems so dark and so horrible that I can convince myself of anything. So I kept going, despite being exhausted, despite that I felt like I was forcing myself to stay engaged, and then… oh, lord, this is JUST AS RIDICULOUS. So, I’ve been a sensitivity reader for over three years now, and editors/authors frequently hire me to give their manuscripts a look in terms of cultural sensitivity and authenticity. After I got back from tour, I booked five separate edits, and I knew I needed the money, and let me just tell y’all: they were bad. REALLY, REALLY BAD. All five of them! So, imagine spending all your “free” time reading badly written books full of horrific stereotypes and tropes, and then add depression to that and…

Whew. So, that’s not to excuse how many things I misinterpreted, and it’s also clear that I had problems OUTSIDE of this episode that many of you brought up to me. But with Monstrous Regiment in particular, my heart wasn’t in it because I was just so tired and sad. 

This is not a pity post. I actually feel pretty good since I posted my apology and have not had an episode since then. Hell, it’s been a wake-up call that I need to not bottle these things up, so being honest about my mental health has been a huge help to me. I am saying all of this because I want to approach Monstrous Regiment with both an open mind and an open heart, to not assume that Pratchett is writing in bad faith (like those other authors were, UGH, ONE BOOK I EDITED IS LITERALLY UNFIXABLE, THE WHOLE PREMISE IS A DISASTER), and to try and appreciate the complex narrative for what it was. I might come to the same conclusion about some things, and I expect to be challenged about my thoughts on others. But given the ending of the book, I think that one character in particular is going to give me a hell of a journey through this story. 

So! There will be about five “splits” per section, one posted each weekday at this specific time. NO ROT13 IS NEEDED UNLESS IT IS FOR A FUTURE DISCWORLD BOOK. We haven’t gotten to do a fuller re-read like this, so it’ll be nice to read everyone’s comments and not worry about being spoiled. (I generally wait until I’ve finished a series before I go back and read all the rot13.) Other than that? Enjoy these, Discworld friends. They’re for you, too.

Part 1

  • So, something was said to me multiple times—and by Phoenix, too!—that if you know what sort of playground of tropes are in this book, it reads way, way differently. I think one of the biases I had going into this is that I’d read so much work on how the fantasy trope of a woman disguising herself as a man was harmful that I just… kind of was biased against this at the start? Which speaks less to the actual trope usage or that specific line and thinking and more to my understanding of the issue and how flawed it is. For a long time, I assumed that Polly was always going to be the only character engaging in this trope, but OH LORD. Not the case at all.
  • One thing that has helped me put myself in a different frame of mind re: Monstrous Regiment is how much it ultimately is about the way war affects women. Even right at the start, Polly makes reference to all the widows in town. Why are there so many? Because they’re the ones left behind. This whole BOOK follows the ones left behind, many of whom are dealing with nightmares on their own. 
  • Thing I Noticed #1: Polly bought a paint box for Paul at 8. Paul is painting when she finally finds him. HELP.
  • So, let’s talk about Borogravia! At the time I’m writing this, the review for part 22 is all that’s gone up, so I haven’t seen whatever inevitable conversation we’re going to have about the dynamic between Borogravia and Zlobenia. My American lens, though, biased me right here at the start, and I can see why: I have grown up in a country that has lied to me my whole life. So when Polly starts talking about Borogravia being a “peace-loving country in the midst of treacherous, devious, warlike enemies,” I kind already assumed they were the bad ones. That is LITERALLY the kind of propaganda that my country has been peddling for decades. It’s obviously more complicated than that, but that line jumped out at me. 
  • Did Jackrum figure out Polly’s secret in that very first meeting? Like, was he testing her with the line about beating girls off with a stick??? Honestly, I feel like this is entirely possible, given how she realizes very quickly that he is not as “drunk nor as stupid as he looked.” OH GOD, HE KNEW FROM THE VERY BEGINNING. Is the “mother and father” line his attempt to toy with her? MAYBE?
  • Thing I Noticed #2: There’s a lot of the word “drag” here as well. Intentional play on words? 
  • I’m realizing now just how important it was that Vimes said that the people of Borogravia were fine, but the nation wasn’t. That distinction is LITERALLY THE POINT AT THE END OF THE BOOK. 
  • Thing I Noticed #3: Holy shit, Vimes snuck men into the Keep dressed as washerwomen. GODDAMN IT, WAS THE ENTIRE BOOK FORESHADOWED IN THE FIRST 20 PAGES.
  • So, the Duchess’s absence (because she’s dead) plays into this in a more political sense than I realized, particularly since Prince Heinrich should have been on the throne. Instead, he’s in another country fighting Borogravia! As Vimes puts it, it’s an “elaborate charade to keep Heinrich out.” At the same time, Ankh-Morpork also has specific interests in this war, since they need the clacks operating.

Part 2

  • Thing I Noticed #4: The other women-in-disguise all claim to love the beer because it makes them seem like men. HOLY SHIT. 
  • I am also going to suggest that maybe Jade looks as “trollish” as she does BECAUSE it is a disguise. She overcompensated so that no one would suspect her.
  • Thing I Noticed #5: It’s Jackrum who makes the “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” joke. JACKRUM. 
  • But let’s talk about that! I remember reading this on camera and having a moment of discomfort, but I ultimately chose not to say anything at the time either in the video or the review. Thinking about the book as a whole, I believe I know why this joke made me feel weird. Often times, there is an unfortunate misconception that gender issues and sexuality issues are the same. They obviously intersect! But Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, was a US military policy that specifically targeted gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members. I am certain that trans folks and gender nonconforming people were caught up in this, as they often are in acts of homophobia, partly BECAUSE there is this mistaken belief that this is all the same. But the joke is being made solely about gender, not sexuality, so it kinda feels like maybe Pratchett was a little off? I don’t dislike the joke, for what it’s worth, and I think it makes for an incredible little moment if you know what they’re toying at.  [Edited to add from Mark: Yeah, I re-read this AGAIN and I don’t know at all if this really WAS a sly joke about what’s actually happening? Like, on the surface, it’s clearly about vampires, but my brain was like, “But it’s ALSO about the other big secret,” except… yeah, I don’t know. I think I was also operating under a much more hyperaware lens and try to pick up everything, and this actually might have nothing to do with gender at all, so FEEL FREE TO IGNORE THIS.]
  • My god, I really missed the mark on Jackrum SO FUCKING EARLY. I have gone back and read some of the non-rot13 threads, and it’s clear that for a lot of folks, Polly’s scene in the privy isn’t harmful, but rather comes off as something that’s pretty damn rare in books PERIOD. 
  • Thing I Noticed #6: Jackrum says, “…they notice what’s missing more than they notice what’s there.” Hi, here’s an entire message just for me and my original read-through of this book. I missed a LOT. Including seeing how helpful Jackrum was, how tender they were with Polly before sending her on her way. 

Part 3

  • I still get a lot of joy out of Polly being sarcastic with Strappi. I’m so glad I dislike him as much as I do.
  • Thing I Noticed #7: Polly tells Tonker that she needs to sharpen the razor for shaving, but she tells Polly that she knows what she’s doing. OH GOD, SHE DOESN’T. Another clue!
  • Thing I Noticed #8: Maladicta calmly drinking coffee. Oh my god, that detail was there the whole time. SHE CARRIES HER OWN SUPPLY. 
  • Jackrum gave Polly a chance not to fight Strappi, which did not seem significant before but does now. He was trying to protect them to an extent, and giving Polly an out could be read as part of that. At the same time, he doesn’t intervene when Strappi is cruel to the recruits, and I have no explanation for the wink that he gives Polly. 
  • Thing I Noticed #9: Polly thought there was something odd about Shufti. DID SHE SUBCONSCIOUSLY KNOW THE TRUTH.
  • Still very pleased with how much I hated Strappi. He is INSUFFERABLE. 
  • I also think that out of all these characters, Tonker is probably my favorite. I relate to her anger, her rejection of the world around her, her desire for something better in the place of it all. IT IS VERY ME.
  • So, I think I’ve identified another reason why it was so easy for me to see this all through the lens of being an American, which affected my reading of this war. Again, it’s due to certain words and phrases reminding me of my own country, which is probably not what Pratchett intended? But at the end of Part 3, Polly has that bit about everyone being liars, and I saw that as yet another anti-war commentary, but one rooted in the active propaganda that a nation’s military can spread. I still believe that Borogravia is, more or less, in the wrong here, even if I don’t really like Prince Heinrich, either. But I’m interested if there’s a British take on this that might put this in light of the British empire or another war. I felt that this was a commentary on senseless nationalism and military propaganda. Does that still ring true? 
  • Thing I Noticed #10: Polly knows she is surrounded by lies, but doesn’t realize how applicable it is to her fellow soldiers.

Part 4

  • Good god, I’m now realizing how tragic the backstory is for Polly’s mother. Her mother prayed to the Duchess for help, but the Duchess literally could not help her. FUCKED UP.
  • Lofty’s reveal happens so much earlier than I remember! And I do love Polly’s confusion, because what would have been a good thing to say after that???
  • Thing I Noticed #11: Lofty was easy to miss because she was always “in Tonker’s shadow.” LORD, IT WAS RIGHT THERE. Oh my god, she was “following her boy” and it was “kind of romantic.” Sooooooo… clearly I was just not clued into this at all, but it’s also a sign of how I viewed rep as needing much more explicit terms when… this is really, really direct? Then we’ve got Polly trying to guess who helped her with the socks, dismissing ALL the women in her group, and then never even considering Jackrum. 
  • The refugee scene is still upsetting. And I think it still plays into this notion that the people of Borogravia no longer want war; it’s the nation. 
  • Knowing the endgame, it’s clear now what most of de Worde’s article said. Surrender was rejected by “The Duchess,” who was not even alive at this point. She’d been long dead. So how could she issue orders or ultimatums? Instead, the people protecting the Duchess exacerbated this issue even further. 
  • What did Strappi and Jackrum argue about in this section? I can’t remember if it is addressed later, but I’m guessing Jackrum stepped in so that Strappi would stop trying to quell their questions. Maybe???
  • Thing I Noticed #12: Tonker gasps when Strappi calls her a lady. JESUS. 
  • Wow, so… Blouse’s introduction is still an incredible thing because he had no idea what he was walking into. That honorable discharge that Jackrum got hinted at the large file that Jackrum had acquired over the years, so Strappi must have been flipping out. That man lived for turning on others, on being disloyal if it got him a better position, and on doing anything to avoid any real fighting. The irony of that, of course, is that he’s so performative about being a soldier, yet he can’t actually be one because he’s such a huge coward. 
  • Jackrum grinned “mirthlessly” at Polly asking about what a batman was because he wanted her to become Blouse’s batman, right???

Part 5

  • So, I see this as the first real moment that Wazzer questions what’s going on around her. Understandably so, of course, because it’s here that she figures out that they’re being equipped with the supplies taken off dead men. Her journey is fascinating to me because she stays a believer while actively dealing with her own doubt. So I think it’s significant that she starts to examine Borogravia’s actual condition at this point. 
  • “I’ve starved a few times. There’s no future in it.” THIS JOKE, OH MY GOD. 
  • I’m going to also assume that Scallot’s warning about a “political” in the battalion is foreshadowing for Strappi. However, it must be noted that he literally SAYS Strappi is a political pages later, so HERE WE ARE.
  • One thing that’s striking to me is how much Blouse really, really, REALLY tries. He does! To be honest, to help, to be a good person, and yes, he messes up frequently, but he’s so genuine.
  • I’m also realizing how quiet Shufti is throughout most of this, but she’s also so talented in areas you wouldn’t necessarily expect right off the bat. She’s the one who cooks the food at the first inn so that it actually retains flavor, despite that Scallot has been living off horsemeat for a while. So you’ve got this skill that is traditionally associated with women in Borogravia being used in a directly positive way, though Scallot wouldn’t think of it this way. 
  • I really didn’t pick up on the Roundheels Molly thing that Scallot says. Did that strike anyone as weird?
  • Another question: Why do y’all think Maladicta made a big deal out of identifying both Lofty and Shufti as women? Re-reading this, I wonder if she wanted to push suspicion off of herself by directing Polly’s attention elsewhere. 
  • Thing I Noticed #13: “Igor’s probably a washerwoman in disguise.” I AM SCREAMING. 
  • Thing I Noticed #14: “And d’you know he once saved General Froc’s life? He’s been everywhere, got the goods on everyone, knows more strings than me…” I… I don’t know what to say. It’s all here. SPELLED OUT FOR ME.
  • The same goes for Shufti, and I did not pick up on the “plumpness” of her, or the comment about being unmarried, and then put those pieces together to get a fuller portrait of what she was going through and why she left home. But her anger at Polly starting to suggest that she should be at “home” should have clued me in.

By the 25% mark, I really should have just known how ridiculous this was going to get. And while part of the intent of this whole re-read is to really dig into this book, I know that there was no way I was going to catch everything on the first time. It’s pretty impossible to expect that of myself, but I can also see why it was obvious that I wasn’t giving this the attention I have other books. There is SO MUCH going on here that went right over my head. 

Wow, this was long! Which is great! I was worried as I started this that I might not have much to say, but this is an intensely detailed book, and I’m glad it’s giving me so much to work with on a second pass. Up next: parts 6 – 10!

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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