When Boys Were Girls and Girls Were Boys

I recently had the pleasure of reading two very different books about the meaning of gender. I realize that sounds a bit dull but these books were anything but. The first is Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett and the second is Misfortune by Wesley Stace. Monstrous Regiment is a rollicking satiric adventure story about a girl who disguises herself as a boy so she can join the dregs of a badly beaten army and Misfortune is a Dickensian journey about a boy who is raised as a girl by a delicate and confused foster father who won't, or perhaps can't, admit that his daughter is really a son. But before we talk about that, I have some exciting news for John Scalzi fans. He's currently touring in support of his new book The Last Colony, the third book in the Old Man's War series. Be sure to check the list of tour dates to see if he'll be reading, signing and discussing near you.

Monstrous Regiment

Monstrous Regiment's Polly Perk is angry and worried. Her brother went away to join the army a year ago and she's had no word from him. Meanwhile dire rumors and injured soldiers are filling the inn she runs, making her worry even more. When she can't bear it any longer she cuts her hair, changes her name and is one of the very last recruits to join a decimated army. Her unit is a ragtag group that includes a troll, a vampire, an Igor (think Frankenstein's assistant), a very fat sergeant with a terrifying reputation and a superior officer with a flair for dramatics who loves to talk about the days he wore women's clothes in plays back at school.

Somewhat surprised to find she's not the oddest one in her regiment, Polly starts to wonder if she's the only one hiding a secret. When someone she can't see suggests she put a pair of socks to good use to enhance her disguise she's even more curious about her fellow soldiers. Which one of them knows her secret and will they continue to help her keep it? But as the regiment is immediately thrown into battle and she unknowingly incapacitates the leader of the enemy, drawing unwanted attention from the press and bringing the wrath of the surrounding army down on her regiment's head, she's a little too busy to spend much time investigating these mysteries.

Monstrous Regiment is classic Terry Pratchett, filled with adventure, humor, fabulous characters and sly digs at political and social institutions. Most of the characters are new but one old favorite, Commander Samuel Vimes of the Night Watch, appears. He's a reluctant ambassador sent to try and make the leaders of Polly's country stop fighting before they all die in the war or of starvation. While Monstrous Regiment can be read as a simple, funny and touching story, there is quite a bit more for those who want more than a quick read, including commentary on religious fanaticism, patriotism, the war hawk mentality and gender and racial stereotypes.

Misfortune

Lord Geoffrey Loveall is an extremely eccentric, sensitive young man living under the thumb of his horrible bedridden mother. The year is 1820 and he is so sensitive that some days the only way he can walk around his own home is to ask his hundreds of servants to pretend that he's invisible. Out of the house one day on an errand for his mother, he discovers a dog on a trash heap with a bundle in its mouth. To his great surprise and delight the package contains a newborn baby. He bears the infant home in triumph, announcing that he has found his adoptive daughter, incidentally relieving him of the terrible pressure of trying to have a child of his own.

The baby, called Rose grows up in a very happy home with very little to mar her delightful childhood. But as she gets older certain changes occur, for instance she has to shave her face every day, and she eventually realizes that she is really a boy. Shocked and driven from his/her home by greedy relatives Rose starts an amazing and terrible journey to try and come to terms with his/her true self.

In Misfortune Wesley Stace has created a wonderful tragically comic, or perhaps comically tragic, novel that explores the age-old nature versus nurture question. It's always entertaining, never heavy-handed, and a fascinating read from start to finish. And I saw it on sale at the bookstore last week for the ridiculously low price of $6.99, for hardback no less!

One-Paragraph Review

This week's one-paragraph review is from Mumbles, who says, "The Spiderman movies are the best comic book translations to film since 'Dick Tracy.'" Have you got a one-paragraph (or smaller) review you'd like to share? Send it in to me and I'll run the most interesting ones. You can reach me at feedback@qualitytimeweekly.com.