Monstrous Regiment is set in Borogravia, a small plains kingdom dominated by an insane orthodox religion ("Nugganism") and a cult of personality around its (possibly dead) ruler, the Duchess of Borogravia, whose frowning portrait stares down on Borogravians from every wall.
Polly Perks works in her father's pub, The Duchess, where both Nugganistic orthodoxy and the endless wars against Borogravia's neighbors have taken their toll: Polly's mother died of lingering illness, taking Polly's faith along with her; and the wars have taken Polly's brother, Paul, who is missing in action. Nugganatic law means that without her slightly dim, lovable brother in the picture, the pub will go to an idiot cousin (Nugganistic law lets women inherit "women's things" like cats and spinning wheels, not pubs), and, more importantly, Polly is worried sick about him.
So Polly cuts off her hair, puts on Paul's clothes, and sets out to a neighboring town, where a fat sergeant and his corporal are banging the drum and recruiting soldiers for the endless wars. She joins as a man — "Oliver Perks" and is soon joined by an extremely motley crew of boys (of several species) who are shouted into service by the red-faced sergeant (who seems a good sort), and the abusive, awful Corporal Strappi, who does not seem a good sort at all.
And then, in the latrines, a mysterious stranger passes her a rolled up pair of socks over the wall and huskily whispers that though she's got the nose-picking and scratching down very well, she really needs some strategic padding in the right spot to make a go of her boy costume. Frightened and grateful, Polly/Oliver puts the socks where they will do her disguise some good, and heads back to the squad.
Where, with a new, critical eye, she starts to realize that she's not the only girl dressed as a boy, off to fight the wars.
Monstrous Regiment's cast of characters are almost all unique to this book — there's a few Ankh Morporkians who play a pivotal role, but they are introduced as strangers to Polly and her comrades — meaning that no prior knowledge of the series is necessary to enjoy it.
And enjoy it you will, I think. This novel shows off all of Pratchett's strengths to best light. First of all is his capacity for marvellous bathos: that is, countersinking serious, emotional moments with slapsticks, puns and light humor, keeping the mood swinging all around the compass, poking you in places you didn't know you had. Secondly, there's his characterization, which is epic. Pratchett fans love his people, and these people are some of his most lovable. And finally, there's the plotting, which is drum-tight, as the book reveals surprise after surprise, right up the very ending.
I travel a lot and spend a lot of time contending with jetlag, and one of my sure-fire remedies is bedtime stories — favorite audiobooks that I play while dropping off to sleep. Without a doubt, the absolute best material for putting me into the warm, flannel-like drowsiness that precedes sleep is Pratchett — they're books that make me feel safe and entertained and warm and like all is right in the universe. Pratchett's had many great readers over the years (there was a series of Corgi casette abridgments read by Rowan Atkinson!), but Stephen Briggs is my favorite.
And, happily, there is a DRM-free, unabridged Briggs recording of this one, in which Briggs shows off his virtuoso talent for using accents and other tricks to carry off the characterization of a large and challenging cast of characters.
Like all of Pratchett's best work, this one has its roots in classical material: the 16th century misogynist tract First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstruous Regiment of Women, the folk-song Sweet Polly Oliver, and, of course, the story of Joan of Arc.
But like all of Pratchett's best work, this book bridges its classical sources to the present day, bringing feminist and trans themes to light along with contemporary ideas about religious wars, militarism, mercantilism and geopolitics.
And all of that in a novel that flies along with such sprightliness that you'd never suspect it was pulling such heavy freight.