I wanted to reread something in honor of the late Sir Terry Pratchett. I picked Monstrous Regiment because, of all of his Discworld books, it's the one I've reread least. There's a reason for that: I remember thinking previously that it was a long way from being his best work.
When I reread it, I discovered that it's still a long way from being his best work. Gad, I'm perceptive! Or consistent, at least.
It's not that it isn't fun to read. Virtually any Pratchett—at least prior to Unseen Academicals, in which his illness was starting to show—is a pleasurable reading experience. This one has the usual quota of clever sentences, insight, running gags, and so forth. If that's what you want in your Pratchett, don't worry.
But Pratchett at the top of his game is something better than that: he's a top-notch teller of stories. And this isn't one. It's filled with incidents, which follow one another in sequence, but that's not the same thing.
Take the nominal protagonist. Polly Oliver is smart and observant and sympathetic, but she never actually does much. She doesn't make any hard choices on her own, or think about what she's doing, or put herself in special danger. She goes along in a group, and does what the group does.
The antagonist, on the other hand, is ... what? I'm not sure. The situation, maybe? Pratchett himself seems unsure. There's a nasty character, Corporal Stroppi, who starts out making Polly's life difficult, but he runs off around a quarter of the way through the book; he reappears near the end, briefly, and is quickly disposed of. There's an enemy officer who makes even less impression. I suppose you could say that the antagonist is "society," but "society" doesn't actually throw many obstacles in Polly's way either, because on page 1 she's already pretty well gotten a successful angle on the situation.
As a result, while Polly starts with a goal, any progress she makes towards it is purely accidental. She even achieves it ... by asking the right person at the right time. Oh, and there's a near-literal deus ex machina as well, which solves the "society-as-antagonist" problem with no effort on anyone's part.
Finally, as my friend Allen pointed out: in a book about war and soldiering, it's pretty lame when your nominal soldier-y heroes never have to actually do the one thing that soldiering is all about: killing and/or being killed. It's like they're in Disney's Warland theme park.
Late in the book, Polly reflects that it's odd
... finding out it's not about you.You think you're the hero of the story, and it turns out your part of someone else's story ... Alice will be the one they remember. We just had to get her here.Couldn't have put it better myself.