Monday, May 13, 2013

Review: Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis

World War II, British spies, Nazi supermen, warlocks trafficking with powerful entities. I had heard many good things about the Milkweed Triptych (Bitter Seeds, The Coldest War, and the just released Necessary Evil) by author Ian Tregillis, so I settled down to read this book with high expectations, and Tregillis did not disappoint. Here's the blurb:

It’s 1939. The Nazis have supermen, the British have demons, and one perfectly normal man gets caught in between

Raybould Marsh is a British secret agent in the early days of the Second World War, haunted by something strange he saw on a mission during the Spanish Civil War: a German woman with wires going into her head who looked at him as if she knew him.

When the Nazis start running missions with people who have unnatural abilities—a woman who can turn invisible, a man who can walk through walls, and the woman Marsh saw in Spain who can use her knowledge of the future to twist the present—Marsh is the man who has to face them. He rallies the secret warlocks of Britain to hold the impending invasion at bay. But magic always exacts a price. Eventually, the sacrifice necessary to defeat the enemy will be as terrible as outright loss would be.

Alan Furst meets Alan Moore in the opening of an epic of supernatural alternate history, the tale of a twentieth century like ours and also profoundly different.

The book is mostly told from the viewpoints of three characters. Raybould Marsh is a British spy. He's a tough man, deceptively clever as a man from a simple, poor background. William Beauclerk, brother of a Duke and friend to Marsh, was raised by his drunk, mean, warlock grandfather. Being the younger sibling, William was initiated at a young age into his grandfather's mystical world. The power to traffic with "Eidolons", beings for whom time/space is viewed differently, comes with a blood price. Will's hands are covered with small scars from where he had to cut himself to invoke the Eidolons in a life he had left behind, until Marsh contacts him to join Project Milkweed, a section of the SIS (M16) that is investigating the Nazi supermen. And finally, the third viewpoint belongs to Klaus, one of the Nazi supermen with an ability to phase into a ghostlike state and walk through walls. Klaus makes for one of the more interesting characters, as he finds his allegiance rather torn at times. His sister Gretel has precognitive abilities, but seems quite mad, and causes him no ends of trouble.

The book has many interesting concepts. The Nazi supermen were orphans, experimented on and raised by a cold-hearted Nazi doctor and are often referred to as "Dr. Von Westarp's children". Even though they control their powers at will, they can only use them when they are connected to batteries which are on their belt. Wires go from the batteries to the backs of their skulls, making them rather conspicuous. I thought this was all a nice touch, as the batteries limited them and were a source of weakness. The book's most interesting concept though, was it's use of the warlocks. These are not typical sorcerers, and often refer to themselves as "negotiators". By using blood and speaking Enochian, the warlocks summon Eidolons. They then ask for either information, or for the Eidolon to warp reality in some way, then negotiating a blood price. This blood price can be anything from some of the warlock's blood, to a fingertip, or even other people's lives. There's a lot of interesting ideas about the Eidolons, and the more they are used the higher the price. Although the Eidolons can't kill someone themselves, they serve many support roles such as filling the English Channel with a weird, unnatural fog to prevent invasion from the Germans.

Overall the book is very enjoyable, and I will definitely be reading the following two books. The characters were engaging, the subject matter interesting, and the book was much darker than I thought it would be. The characters are really thrown through some difficult challenges, and oftentimes must break their own moral code to do what must be done or find themselves broken from the things they were forced to do. The end result is a story that is at times exciting, and at times heartbreaking. Recommended for fans of alternate history, weird Nazi science, and espionage. There's a lot to like here, and I can't wait to crack open the second book.

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