"We know enemy forces are in the area. Currently they have no boots. But there will be others with boots aplenty. Also, there may be deserters in the area. They will not be nice people! They will be impolite!"
The 28th Discworld book, and one of the few recent Discworld books not to center around one of the major character sets (The Watch, Death, Rincewind, or the Witches), though William de Worde from The Truth and Sam Vimes make a few appearances.The setting of the story is the fantastically aggressive country of Borogravia, a constantly-at-war theocracy under the apparently mad god Nuggan, probably the only god on the Discworld to update his holy text almost constantly (mostly with Abominations against things like garlic, the colour blue and babies). The young heroine, Polly Perks, leaves home, dresses as a boy, and joins the military to find her strong but simple brother Paul, who is the only eligible heir to the family inn and who vanished a year ago after going off to fight the Zlobenians.Polly signs up under the alias Oliver with an infantry regiment, the Ins-and-Outs, alongside a motley handful of other recruits, including four young humans (who quickly earn the nicknames "Tonker", "Lofty", "Shufti", and "Wazzer"), Carborundum the troll, Maladict the vampire and an Igor. Led by novice officer Lieutenant Blouse and the far more savvy (and intimidating) Sergeant Jackrum, the recruits are hurried to the front, learning more than they wanted to along the way about the sad state of their country and the vast alliance mounting against Borogravia.Spoiler Alert: There is one slowly-building twist that it is all but impossible not to reveal in a discussion about this book, so read on at your peril: Polly comes to learn that she's not the only fighting "man" in her squad with something to hide...Preceded by Night Watch, followed by Going Postal.
Actually, I Am Him: Polly talks to a worn-looking lowly sergeant from the Ankh-Morpork forces, unaware that he's actually Vimes "the Butcher". note Or, to give him his full title at this point in the series, "His Grace, His Excellency, The Duke of Ankh; Commander Sir Samuel Vimes".
Ax-Crazy: Tonker will slice you open if you touch Lofty, Lofty will torch the world if it does something she doesn't like and Wazzer will try to take on someone three times her size if they bad-mouth the Duchess. The results are not pretty.
It's not tearing their heads off that doesn't come easily to Mal. Admittedly he was trying to scare the enemy into surrender at the time. But later on, it becomes rather more dire.
Bad Ass: Very nearly landing three hits on Sergeant Jackrum in a bar brawl is something to be proud of and remembered for generations.
Bad Guys Do the Dirty Work: Repeatedly, Polly and the rest are saved from having to actually kill someone. First by Jackrum, then the other Borogravian soldiers.
Batman-Gambit: When the regiment captures a Zlobenian sergeant, Wide-Eyed Idealist Lieutenant Blouse decides to take him prisoner. Jackrum acquiesces... and puts him under the guard of the two wimpiest members of the regiment. When the sergeant breaks loose and takes Blouse hostage, Jackrum is "forced" to shoot the man dead. As he explains to Polly later, there was no way they could've realistically kept him alive and a prisoner.
Vimes apparently learned a few tricks from Vetinari. He actually helps Polly's squad because he realizes it will make an impressive story that Borogravia can rally behind, and which his own people will find amusing, thus proving the enemy isn't all that bad.
Becoming the Mask: Sergeant Jackrum. Not only has she been in disguise long enough to make a detailed account of every other female hiding in the ranks of the army, she also has evaded her service papers discharging her from the army for years. As the war ends, she admits to Polly that she doesn't want to return home to just be an old biddy. Polly suggests that she keep the mask and return home as a respected retired sergeant instead.
Berserk Button: Never insult the Duchess where Wazzer can hear you. Or interfere with Mal's coffee.
Bifauxnen: Maladicta, who's dapper and good-looking in her male disguise.
Blatant Lies: Subverted hilariously by Jackrum, who has a tendency to say "upon my oath, I am not an X man" before doing something that falls firmly in the category of "X", such as violence, dishonesty or somesuch. She is being completely honest, we learn - she isn't a man of any description.
Boarding School of Horrors: The Girls' Working School. Blouse's "school for young gentlemen" wasn't as extreme, but the other soldiers have to wonder "what kind of life an officer could have led that inclined him to like scubbo".
Borrowed Catch Phrase: At the end of the book, Sergeant Polly Perks re-enlists in the Borogravian army, and quotes Jackrum when she tells two recruits-who-are-really-girls-in-diguise "You are my little lads, and I will look after you."
Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Blouse initially looks like a spineless, naive fop without the first idea of what war is actually about. But when the chance arises, he gets the chance to show off not only his own specialised skills (in certain areas he has a mind like a steel trap) but also a surprising amount of steel. He even makes Jackrum sit down and shut up.
Chekhov's Skill: Polly's birdwatching know-how lets her catch on to how the group is being kept under surveillance, as Swires' buzzard doesn't seem right for the region. Lofty's pyromania also comes in handy in a tight spot.
Combat Pragmatist: Practically everyone at some point, but particularly Polly and Jackrum.
Continuity Nod: The "helicopters" conjured up by Maladict's coffee-jonesing hallucinations keep aloft using air-screws rather than rotors, as conceived and eventually used to paint a ceiling by Leonard of Quirm in The Last Hero.
Jackrum mentions Jolly Sailor tobacco, which is Granny Aching's favored brand in The Wee Free Men.
Crosscast Role: Lieutenant Blouse reminisces about playing one of these in an all-boys school.
Cute and Psycho: When Wazzer snaps she snaps hard, and you don't want to be in the vicinity when it happens. (Polly is continuously unnerved while she is "speaking to the Duchess" with a sabre in her hand!)
Deconstruction: At one point of the Bawdy Song; also, the book in a way deconstructs the Women Are Wiser idea that if women were in charge, there would be no more wars. This sentiment is uttered in the book by Wazzer in one of her more Cloudcuckoolander moments, but is utterly contradicted by its plot.
Polly herself calls it out, saying that the only people who think that don't know many women, particularly the nosy old women who seemingly live to rat out people (especially younger women) for breaking Nugganic law and who are always in the front row for public executions.
Deity of Human Origin: The Duchess evidently became this after her death, as people stopped praying to Nuggan and prayed to her instead. Wazzer ends up channeling her at a critical moment.
Does This Remind You of Anything?: Borogravia's geography and constant wars are reminiscent of the Balkan conflicts following the disintegration of Yugoslavia, while the treatment of women in Nugganic Borogravia is basically cherry-picked from a number of misogynistic Double Standards throughout history, from Polly needing her brother to act as the nominal owner of the family inn to women being threatened with beatings or even imprisonment for various crimes to "unattached" women being frowned upon. As a starving country where the military is the only functional part of the government and the head of state is worshiped as a demi-god, it's also rather reminiscent of North Korea.
Ankh-Morpork involved itself in the war when Borogravia, without warning or provocation, attacked and destroyed the clacks towers of A-M. note This is reminiscent of Poland's fabricated attack on Nazi Germany's radio towers, which gave Hitler an excuse to invade.
The "Abominations" of the Nugganite religion bring Leviticus to mind, especially the bit about Nugganites more or less disregarding the more inconvenient Abominations. Some of them are even direct riffs from Levitican abominations, such as crop rotation. They resemble the Taliban's diktats against a lot of things, such as kites and toilet paper.
A young girl receiving messages from the local divinity, telling her to lead the army forwards and cleanse the land of foreign invaders, dressing like a man to do so: Wazzer bears a deliberate resemblance to Joan of Arc.
Sam Vimes' mistranslation "Ze chzy Brogrocia proztfik" calling himself a cherry pancake instead of a citizen of Borogravianote note that he screws up a noun rather than an article as was said to have happened in real life is a reference to the JFK quote in which he reportedly called himself a jelly donut. Of course, there is a key difference; "Berliner" means both a citizen of Berlin and a jam-filled donut,note Except when you are in Berlin, in which case the donut is a Pfannkuchen and Berliner always means "a citizen of Berlin" with the actual meaning derived from the context.
The uniforms, the running gag about military leaders having articles of clothing named after them, the Duchess hiding in mourning for years, the first time where military forces relied on the mass media for intel... You could find similarities in the Crimean War, where the British had red uniforms, with Queen Victoria in a state of mourning, commanders included the "knitwear lords" - the 7th Earl of Cardigan, the 1st Baron Raglan, while the 7th Earl of Jersey was a leading member of the government of the day (oh, and balaclavas are named after the location of one of the battles) - and Russians were intercepting this new "telegraph" which the Times used to report the latest news...
The Girls' Working School bears quite noticeable similarities (both in content and how girls ended up there) to Ireland's infamous Magdalene Laundries.
Ensign Newbie: Lieutenant Blouse. Plays the trope straight most of the time, but he does get one subversive moment when - in the face of Jackrum's protests - he uses what he learned while stuck in his desk job to intercept and interpret the Zlobenians' light signals. He's also very good at his original job as a clerk — he's only in field command because so many other officers have been lost. He's quite intelligent and a fast learner - he infiltrates an enemy compound as a woman (when the actual women in his squad couldn't), learns how to use a Zlobenian mobile clacks in five minutes, invents run-length encoding and avoids an enemy patrol by pretending to be their lookout and flat-out lying to them. He's just not good at fighting.
Even Evil Has Standards: A Punch-and-Judy puppeteer gets run out of town because the puppet was beating his wife with a stick with a thickness greater than one inch, a standard found in the book of Nuggan—and widely though falsely alleged to be the source of the phrase "rule of thumb".
Everyone Can See It: Blouse's immediate response to learning that Tonker's a girl is "And Lofty?" Apparently even he could tell there was something going on there.
Exact Words: How Sergeant Jackrum gets away with everything.
Polly, too. Twice; once when "storming" the castle and second when promoted to sergeant after the court-martial
Flash Back Echo of the Vietnam War: you know things are bad when Maladict starts seeing "Charlie" in the bushes. Of course these are side-flashes of someone else's past, so things don't start getting serious until he hears helicopters.
And, because he's a vampire, when things are really, really bad, other people start seeing them too.
Flock of Wolves: The entire squad and apparently, nearly a third of the Borogravian army (or at least a third of the top brass) is composed of women disguised as men.
Flynning: Subverted. When Corporal Strappi picks out Polly to do a sword demonstration, she knows she's not supposed to hit his sword. This throws Strappi off completely, since he was looking forward to embarrassing an inexperienced new recruit and had adopted a stance designed to easily counter it but weak against a real attack.
Foreshadowing: There are hints early in the book about Sergeant Jackrum's real/birth sex, but it takes most people a few re-reads plus advance knowledge of the spoiler to notice them. The biggest one is Jackrum's reason for getting stuck on recruiting party despite his in-universe Memetic Badass status: he got his leg sliced open, then bit the doctor who tried to treat him, and tended to the injury personally, allowing Froc to slap him with recruiting duty as a "reward" while he was laid up. While it's easy to pass off as a throwaway gag to enhance Jackrum's Badass status, it becomes foreshadowing when you realize that to treat his leg, the (presumably male) doctor would have either had to take Jackrum's pants off, or at least get close enough to notice that there were one or two things either missing or sock-enhanced. No wonder Jackrum bit him and did the work himself!
If you've read Thud! before this book, then the Reveal about Mal's gender is hinted at by the fact that the vampire never changes shape once, even when it'd be tactically useful for scouting purposes. Two novels later, we learn that female Black Ribboners wind up naked if they change into bats, then return to human form; therefore, Mal didn't dare use this power without exposing her sex and getting in trouble for losing her uniform.
While Blouse is being shaved for his washerwoman disguise, he mentions to Polly that the famous General Froc is "very anti-whiskers". Froc, along with a good chunk of the army's higher-ups, is also a woman in disguise.
Gargle Blaster: In an early scene in a bar, Carborundum orders the troll version: the Electric Floor-Banger. It's well-named, they find.
Gendercide: Far from complete, but one reason given for the prevalence of Sweet Polly Oliver is that the constant warfare has taken its toll on the population of more conventional combatants. The country was "running out of sons almost as fast as it accumulated widows."
Genius Ditz: Blouse is a genius when it comes to anything that deals with numbers. He even figured out the clacks system in five minutes flat without ever being near a clacks tower and suggested algorithms to improve it. Unfortunately, he is without a clue when it comes to anything else.
Genre Blind: Vimes is disgusted that the Borogravians could be fooled by soldiers (some with moustaches) disguising themselves as washerwomen.
Genre Savvy: The Zlobenians don't make the same mistake.
It's implied that the Alliance let Blouse's charade go on so that the rest of his unit would come to the fortress and be captured.
Or alternatively, that despite the laughably bad acting he showed the squad before he sneaked in, he's actually an amazingly good actor. He is one of the most unexpected bunny-eared lawyers in the series, after all.
It doesn't hurt that he irons like a demon, either.
Gentle Giant: Paul is described as big, kind, slow and able to lift whole beer kegs like toys.
Glad You Thought of It: Polly tries to get Blouse to "suggest" the idea of sneaking into the keep disguised as washerwoman. He does so, but assumes he's the only one with a chance of pulling it off. Amazingly, he is!
In one scene, Blouse's horse tries to bite Polly there, only to get the socks. When Polly notices, she quotes a few things she's heard in "rule-free bar fights" and punches it. Blouse faints, and when he comes to Polly explains that the trousers are a bit big for her, which he hastily accepts.
Hide Your Lesbians: An in-character example; Polly discovers Lofty is a woman, and believes her to be following her love, Tonker. When she discovers Tonker is a woman too, Polly is rather confused and eventually decides not to think about it.
They always held hands, when they thought they were alone. But it seemed to Polly that they didn’t hold hands like people who were, well, friends. They held hands tightly , as someone who has slipped over a cliff would hold hands with a rescuer, fearing that to let go would be to fall away.
Insult Backfire: Because Ankh-Morpork has theoretically sided with Zlobenia (or at least, refused to actively support Borogravia in their constant wars), important people in Borogravia have given Vimes the epithet "Vimes the Butcher" in an attempt to discredit him. It backfires; the main characters think it's because he's a ruthless, efficient warlord, and Polly is relieved to be talking to a grumpy but helpful sergeant instead of his bloodthirsty boss, and more than a little shocked to learn they're the same person. Vimes himself finds it rather amusing.
Like an Old Married Couple: Tonker and Lofty; when Jackrum gets a bit fed up with their refusal to be out of each others' sight, he asks "What are you, married?"
Locking MacGyver in the Store Cupboard: Discworld usually averts this trope, but after a heavy lampshade it's played straight for once near the end, although the materials are only useful to someone who knows a lot about blowing things up. Of course, once the Borogravian soldiers find out they're girls, they're recaptured and stuck in one of the "subversion" cells.
Meaningful Name: Other than (obviously) Polly, it was subverted to hell and back with Blouse. When we're first introduced, it seems like his name is supposed to imply he's a bit of a wimp and a loser. Then as the story progresses the reader is convinced that perhaps Blouse is also a woman. Then (after it is obvious Blouse is not a woman), when it is mentioned that famous war leaders/strategists usually get an item of clothing or a dish named after them, the reader thinks, "Aha! The reason no one has made fun of his name is that they name the women's shirt after him!" (Possibly because of his stint in the laundry with the washerwomen.) Finally, we find out that he did get a piece of clothing named after him... and it's a form of fingerless gloves, which he was wearing throughout most of the book.
Memento MacGuffin: Subverted by Shutfi's boyfriend, who asked her for a sixpence, ostensibly so each could keep half of it and re-join the pieces when he returned from the war. Rather than taking it to the smith to be divided, he spent the coin and abandoned her.
Metaphorgotten: This exchange between Lieutenant Blouse and Sergeant Jackrum:
Blouse: The great General Tacticus says that in dangerous times the commander must be like the eagle and see the whole, and yet still be like the hawk and see every detail. Jackrum: Yessir, and if he acts like a common tit, sir, he can hang upside-down all day and eat fat bacon.
Modern Major General: Blouse plays with the idea of The Strategist, as his knowledge of tactical manoeuvres is shown as not very useful on actual battlefields. However, he does make up for it with his other abilities. Justified in that he was a paper-pusher, where he was apparently very skilled if underutilized, until the army ran out of real field officers.
Mood-Swinger: Tonker, in her own words, doesn't have "middle gears". The quickest way to find this out is to threaten Lofty. (Could also be No Periods, Period rather painfully invoked.)
'S not cannibalism, not unless you eat a whole person. Milit'ry rule.
Nothing Is Scarier: The very little we hear about how the Girls' Working School treated the girls who were locked up there is twice as terrifying as a detailed description would have been. As a specific example, Polly says she met a man who worked there who seemed nice enough. Tonker replies, without going into any further detail, that "He was good at seeming."
Official Couple: Tonker and Lofty a.k.a. Madga and Tilda. Polly pegs them as a couple easily once she discovers Lofty is a woman, while still believing Tonker to be male, before becoming briefly confused when she discovers that they're actually both women.
The Quiet One: When Lofty says more than two words to anyone besides Tonker, it's both a noteworthy event and time to start asking some really specific questions about what, exactly, she has in mind.
Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: You don't get much more ragtag than a hot-head and her pyromaniac girlfriend, an expectant mother, the Discworld equivalent of Joan of Arc, a troll, an Igor, a coffee-crazed vampire, Only Sane Man Polly and a naive clerk turned soldier. Fortunately, they've got a Bad Ass sergeant watching their backs.
Rape as Backstory: Lofty was sent to work at the flour mill where she underwent what Tonker describes as "Beatings. And worse". When she got back from the flour mill she was pregnant, consequently forced to have the baby, and then beaten again for having got pregnant. Then, strangely, the mill burned down.
Reasonable Authority Figure: They're uncommon enough in Discworld that Blouse sticks out as one. He's got the good sense to let Jackrum handle the things he himself isn't suited for (i.e. practically everything), is the first to cross-dress his way into the fortress (his subordinates see this as a suicide mission) and has the perspective to take his platoon's cross-dressing... more or less in stride.
Vimes, especially towards the end when he disabuses everyone of the notion that he is "Vimes the Butcher".
Mrs Enid, the head washerwoman, sees through everyone's ruses in an instant, yet is pragmatic enough to play along flawlessly in front of the Zlobenians, and fair enough to be supportive even though she's a devoted Nugganite.
Reduced to Ratburgers: Scallot claims to actually prefer rat meat to most other foods scrounged up by soldiers. Jackrum says the rotgut he douses himself with before they rob the knocking-shop was brewed from fermented rats.
Royals Who Actually Do Something: Vimes' adherence to this trope causes Polly to mistake him for an irreverent, scruffy sergeant who is blissfully between her and his bloodthirsty commander, "Vimes the Butcher".
The Duchess wants to be one, but the collective belief of Borogravia isn't enough to grant her the power to do any good, which causes her tremendous grief.
Samus Is a Girl: Loads of them. To be precise, the entire Monstrous Regiment aside from Blouse, and according to Jackrum, a third of Borogravia's high command.
Shout Out: After being deprived of coffee, Maladict starts suffering from "flashsides" and acting like an embittered soldier out of a movie about the Vietnam war, complete with references to Apocalypse Now and the anti-war song "Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag".
Also a brief nod to Predator, when Polly's justified sense that they're being followed is substantiated by a glimpse of something that bends the light around it. It's actually Angua who's following them, but Mal's coffee-deprived Reality Warper powers catch on to Polly's paranoia and create the illusion of something up in the trees.
Stealth Pun: A couple of characters, mostly Strappi, keeps accidentally-on-purpose calling Polly "Parts", instead of "Perks", her actual last name. Her rank is Private. This would make her "Private Parts" (which he also calls her to her face once or twice). Also, from the Borogravian National Anthem, "The day is a great big fish" (i.e. is full of opportunity) could potentially be translated as "Carp"e diem.
Strongly Worded Letter: Nuggan (or what's left of him) is described as the divine equivalent of this sort of person.
Supporting Protagonist: Polly reflects at the end that this was actually Wazzer's story, when all is said and done. Even aside from that, Jackrum carries most of the action. Polly is pretty much stuck as point-of-view character because she is the Only Sane Man and is not privy to any of the major twists in the plot.
Trauma Conga Line: Before enlisting, Lofty was separated from Tonker, sent to work for a man who beat and almost certainly raped her, became pregnant, freed herself and her fellow servants by setting fire to the man's house and killing him, got sent back to the reform school, where she gave birth, had her baby taken away, and was beaten again for committing an Abomination (having her rapist's child out of wedlock), at which point she and Tonker ran away to join the army. When Tonker says that there's nothing good for the two of them to go back to in Munz, she's really not exaggerating.
Truth in Television: As part of her disguise, Polly has practiced peeing standing up, and is very proud of herself for having "kept her feet dry". Female-to-male transsexuals can tell you that this is a very legitimate and shared pride.
Unusual Euphemism: References to one's "socks", which is what Polly uses to substitute for certain... missing parts.
Due to vocabulary misunderstanding, Polly admits to hitting a few men "in or about the fracas".
Waif Prophet: Wazzer is rather delicate and nervous, mentally unbalanced in a way that makes her seem a bit eerie, and eventually serves as the conduit for the Duchess's ghost.
With This Herring: As Borogravia is on the brink of defeat, the Monstrous Regiment find the army's attempts to equip them is really more a bunch of broken gear off dead men. There isn't even enough of it for everyone.