Appearances can be deceiving. Borogravia is a small country that gets into fights with any country it can get into a fight with, and most recently is a rather serious fight with Zlobenia.
Brogravians worship the deity Nuggan whose religion has as its main feature the Abominations; a long, often-updated list of banned things which include garlic, cats, the smell of beets, people with ginger hair, shirts with six buttons, anyone shorter than three feet,sneezing, rocks, ears, jigsaw puzzles, chocolate, and the colour blue.
Borogravians, finding the abominations rather restrictive, decide to deify their Duchess, who may or may not be dead and whose succession is at doubt but held quite strongly by one of her nephews Prince Heinrich.
Enter Polly, formerly a barmaid in her family’s Inn, also known as The Duchess. Polly joins the Ins-and-Outs military regiment of Borogravia, under the disguise of a young man so she can find her brother Paul who went off to fight against Zlobenia and has been MIA.
Calling herself, Oliver, known as Ozzie to her squad fellows, Polly discovers the twisting world of military politics. Her fellow soldiers include a vampire named Maladict, a Troll named Carborundum, and an Igor named Igor. They also include “Tonker” Halter, “Shufti” Manickle, “Wazzer” Goom, and “Lofty” Tewt.
Polly comes under the command of a bullying Corporal Strappi, and the mysterious Sergeant Jackrum. Strappi turns out to be a coward, disappearing when he is sent off to the front. Jackrum, though forcibly and honorably discharged, re-enlists and takes charge of the ‘little lads’. The regiment, under the leadership of their inexperienced commanding officer Lieutenant Blouse, makes its way toward the Keep where the enemy is based.
Standing up against the molesting Prince Heinrich of Zlobenia who is himself in disguise, Polly finds just a little more courage to stay in the war even as the newspaper man William de Worde tries to inform them that their side has pretty much lost the war. Lieutenant Blouse is determined to be a hero, inspite of Jackrum’s misgivings.
A few more problems arise as the Ins-and-Outs march on to the front, one of which is the disappearance of Maladict’s sanity coffee, without which Mal begins to experience contagious hallucinations. Wazzer has been having conversations with the quite possibly dead Duchess. There is also the little problem of the fact that everyone of Ozzer’s (Polly) squadron mates is actually a girl in disguise as a boy.
In the meantime, special envoy Commander Sam Vimes keeps an eye on Jackrum’s little lads through Angua the werewolf and Buzz the goblin. He even manages to miraculously provide coffee.
Jackrum’s ‘little lads’ are however tough enough to stick it through until they get to the ‘Keep’, where they have to face the challenge to get into the fortress and rescue Borogravian troops. Which brings up the little situation of a bunch of women, disguised as men, having to disguise themselves as women to get into the keep.
More politics arise when the little lads are found out. But the problem is not from the enemy, who is tricked into a truce. The problem arises from the ranks of the newly rescued Borogravian military who object to ‘women’ being in the military. Strappi reappears at this point, with the goal of punishing his former recruits for some perceived ill, mostly that of humiliation by Polly.
But Jackrum steps in with the political cards of cards! A number of the military brass have trained under Jackrum. But that is not all. They are women, living and fighting as men! In the middle of this revelation, the Duchess, now raised to the level of a small goddess by Borogravia’s belief, takes brief possession of Wazzer, her most passionate believer. The Duchess urges all of the generals to quit the war and return home, to repair their country, returning their kiss of service, and ending their obligation to her.
Polly is sent in as Peace Ambassador to the enemy, where she meets Commander Vimes. Once a truce has been negotiated, with several points of pride, Polly finds her brother Paul and returns home. But not before military rules are changed to allow women to serve openly as women.
As usual, Pratchett’s fantasy humour manages to reflect the social insanity of the real world in the most entertaining of creations!