Most people who read any amount of fantasy have read at least a little bit of Terry Pratchett. If you haven’t, I strongly urge that you do, but, somewhat counter-intuitively, I equally strongly recommend that you don’t start with his earlier books. It’s probably relatively uncontroversial to say that they are less good than the later ones (though I’m sure plenty of ardent fans would lynch me for some of my views on the later stuff). Monstrous Regiment, the 31st Discworld book, was the second of his that I read, and it was a major contributing factor to me going on to read a third (I started with Mort which, while not bad, is not necessarily a brilliant choice and certainly not his best). While it may hurt some to read a series from anywhere other than the beginning, Pratchett’s Discworld series doesn’t really fall together so neatly as one after another, and since you’re probably going to like them enough to come back and read again, starting somewhere late isn’t as bad as it could be.
Monstrous Regiment as a book is a good place to start because it is, mostly, a standalone. A lot of the Discworld series links back on itself, and so you have to start early to get to know the characters and understand what they’re doing. Reading Guards! Guards! helps you understand the people in Night Watch and suchlike. But Monstrous Regiment has only a couple of links outside of itself, and they’re really not plot-central, so the keen newbie won’t feel like they’re missing out on anything. It also has the benefit of being well within what I think of as Pratchett’s best period of writing, which goes from about book 23 – Carpe Jugulum – to book 33 – Going Postal.
Like most Pratchett, it has a lot of references and parodies going on, and you generally won’t spot all of them the first time reading it. Certainly coming back to it (this is my third read, and follows a several year gap since the last one) I’ve found I understand a lot more of the jokes this time. But unlike a lot of Pratchett, the references are not all to other SFF. The title is, for example, a parody of a C16th anti-Catholic tract. I won’t start listing references, because that’s half the fun of reading Pratchett, but be aware that plenty exist.
The characters are well-developed throughout the book, and varied enough that even the most recalcitrant reader can probably find someone they like, though your sympathies are clearly meant to lie with Polly, who has the feel of a lot of Pratchett’s heroines (cf Granny Weatherwax, Tiffany Aching, Susan Sto Helit), being a clever person in a stupid world, but with her feet firmly on the ground. She can be a little self-satisfied, but not so much as to alienate her from the reader, and she’s sufficiently real-person enough to keep us interested. Personally, I find that fantasy authors are often guilty (particularly female fantasy authors, for some odd reason) of casting a heroine as a Strong Woman and then failing to characterise her as such, having crying fits and fainting and falling swooningly in love with a man and tagging along with other people but all the time being praised by the author for being Strong and Dealing With Things. Pratchett doesn’t do that. If he has a strong female character, she wears hobnailed boots and kicks life until it sorts itself out. They are certainly a type – normally rural, not educated but smart and bossy as all hell. They tend not to cry, except at pretty acceptable circumstances, and even then it tends to be minor sniffle that gets overcome and left alone; they tend to a slight sexist attitude against stupid men; and they tend to be born of a sort of matriarchal, farmy culture that strikingly reminds me of parts of the North where I grew up. Not that I grew up somewhere farmy, but the women, possibly in a way of women everywhere in a poor but not poverty-ridden area, tend to dominate, and everyone bows to the matriarch, normally the grandmother, whose wrath can be great if incurred, but never loud.
I didn’t take to Polly all that well, mostly because, while she is a good character, she is too reminiscent of other characters he writes better. Maladict is, I think, where my sympathies lie, though that may be from a natural predisposition to like Pratchett’s vampires (no, that’s not a spoiler, you get told he’s a vampire as soon as you meet him, don’t worry), who manage to avoid most of the awful vampire tropes of a lot of fantasy. Some would argue (and have, frequently and loudly to me) that the only proper vampire is the full-on-evil nosferatu style of monster, but, as a confessed Anne Rice reader (stop judging me; we were all thirteen once) I tend to prefer them with a bit more character depth, but not so much as to start being angsty. Maladict, as most Pratchett vampires, avoids a lot of the angst and mush, but is very much a real person while still being a vampire and having his own quirks because of that.
The storyline is brilliant, and not at all predictable from the outset. It /is/ still a fantasy book, so it does have the whole coming-of-age story feel to it, but it covers it with enough other layers of excellence for the reader not to mind so much. It gets a bit fudged up and rushed towards the end, I find, but all the problems do get resolved one way or the other (not all of them to my liking, but that actually adds to the book – normally if characters don’t get the ending I want for them it spoils a book for me forever, but it works here). It also has a wonderful sense of plurality, where at times you feel he could have got away with writing the same story from the perspective of Wazzer, or Blouse, or Jackrum or even Maladict, and it would have been just as good, and probably would be happily read alongside Monstrous Regiment.
The only un-Pratchetty feature I can really accuse it of having is not being funny. It doesn’t try to have humour and fail, but it does take a more serious line than a lot of his books (while not being subject to the heavy-handed moralising of, for instance Snuff). There are funny moments, but this book is not, primarily, comedic.
I would highly recommend it as a place for a reader to start Pratchett, but I wouldn’t put it down as my favourite book. It holds a place in my heart for getting me sucked into his work, but it is not /quite/ his best. Close, but not quite.