May 22, 2012

Yeti Review: Bitter Seeds - Ian Tregillis


In A Few Words: The best debut of 2010, Bitter Seeds delivers on it's promise of Nazi Supermen vs. British Wizards; representing the start of a dark but brillant new trilogy that is as aggressive in scope as it is captivating in delivery. (2 stars)

Pros:
  • Well-written characters that carry the novel through grim subject matter;
  • Thought-provoking speculation that raises Bitter Seeds above the standard WWII reimagining;
  • The strong integration between alternate history of the war and the events of the book makes the notion of warlocks and psychics feel real; 
  • The implied structure of Milkweed Triptych promises continued originality and innovation

Cons:
  • The conclusion feels a somewhat anticlimatic as the second book is set up;
  • As more of a warning than a con, the tone of the story gets almost too dark at times;
  • Not enough Gretel.

The Review: The saying goes, "War is hell." In few novels is this more true than in Ian Tregillis's debut novel. An alternate history tale set during the darkest days of World War II; Bitter Seeds pits Nazi supermen against British demons in a sprawling battle that leaves everyone involved with deep scars: some physical, some emotional, and most both. Through a quartet of characters intimately involved in this secret war inside a war, Tregillis focuses on these scars and the wounds that cause them in a strikingly dark but equally impressive debut that has earned two stars in my new rating system.

Rather than trying to cover an alternate war in its entirety, Tregillis makes a wise decision and chooses to examine four lives within the war rather than the war itself. From Bitter Seeds’ first pages, it's clear that these four souls are not destined to lead normal lives. On the German side, the orphaned siblings Klaus and Gretel are purchased by Herr Doktor von Westarp for his abhorrent experiments. They and other war orphans are destined to become the Gotterelektrongruppe, a special Nazi outfit of supermen capable of flight, telekinesis, invisibility, and even precognition among other abilities. Klaus himself learns the ability to “ghost”; to pass through walls, bodies, and bullets like they don’t exist. His sister, Gretel, possesses powers of prediction that render her cryptic and, more often than not, incomprehensible. Gretel is the least written about character of the four but still manages to steal scene after scene with her bizarrely captivating antics and disrespect for causality.

Across the channel in the British Isles, a young Raybould Marsh is taken in by a British Intelligence Officer. Little does Marsh know that a career in intelligence will lead him to become involved with forces beyond his imagination. Elsewhere in England, the uncorrupted mind of Will Beauclerk is exposed to eidolons for the first time by his sorcerer grandfather. These entities reside outside the realm of human existence but are willing to interfere, at least for a price. Fast forward fifteen years or so and the world is on the verge of war. Raybould learns of the Nazi supermen during a routine espionage mission to Spain and he is soon tasked with stopping them. As such he reaches out to his college friend, Will, who possess a peculiar set of skills that just may level the playing field. From this brief description, it should be easy to see why the book is advertised as “Mad English warlocks battling twisted Nazi psychics.”

Bitter Seeds delivers on this promise in droves with several outstanding action sequences that just beg for big screen treatment. But underneath the exciting attempts to catch a man that can walk through walls and the orchestrated chaos of an ambush ruined by precognition, Tregillis conceals a wealth of character that helps the story transcend what could have been pure pulp. Now the premise and the execution are strong enough that Bitter Seeds would have been highly enjoyable pulp, but this unexpected depth takes Bitter Seeds from good to great.

Rather than depicting the white vs. black, good vs. evil reimagining of World War II that is all too common where Nazis are involved; Tregillis paints his cast in shades of gray. By focusing on the morality of the characters on both sides of the war and the motivations that can drive normal humans to commit atrocities, the book becomes incredibly gripping, albeit it in an almost perverse way. Another quote applicable to the first volume of the Milkweed Triptych has to be "all is fair in love and war."As the war escalates and the British become more and more desperate to halt the inevitable German invasion, the demonic eidolons demand more and more blood in exchange for their unnatural assistance.

The best science fiction is that which takes relatable ideas and uses speculation to stretch them to idealistic proportions. The idea that is explored here is that of the “Necessary Evil” (also the title of the third book of the Milkweed Triptych); one that frequently occurs in war when considering sacrificing a few for the needs of the many. But under what circumstances does the price become too high to pay? A death? A dozen? What if it's children? It is this grim question that plays heavily on both sides of the trenches and Tregillis sets the seeming unstoppable power of the German supermen against the crimson demands of the eidolons in order to raise the stakes until there is no right answer. Depressing? Yes. Thought-provoking? Without a doubt.

After a less than light hearted first third, this exploration forces the book to become darker and darker the book quickly gets even darker, almost to an excessive level. When a psychic Nazi appears to be the most well adjusted member of the cast, it’s difficult to generate empathy. But even at its darkest, Bitter Seeds never ceases to be compelling. There is a method to the sadness and Tregillis staggers the point at which characters hit rock bottom in a way so not to fully extinguish hope. If the first act sets up the characters as more than human, the second devolves Marsh, Beauclerk, and Klaus into something less than, and the third sees their attempt to pick up the pieces.

At first the conclusion feels somewhat underwhelming, in part due to the staggered nature of each of the character arcs. But as each of the characters concludes their final scene, we get a glimpse of the brilliant structure of the Milkweed Triptych, something that seems blatantly obvious in hindsight. In the last few pages, Tregillis teases the content of June's The Coldest War enough to make it instantly one of my most anticipated books of the year: a suitable accomplishment in its own right. In Bitter Seeds, Tregillis takes a played out setting and made it fresh again, crafting a darkly gripping tale that examines the morality of war through the lens of four superhuman characters who become anything but.

3 comments:

  1. I just read this one myself, and enjoyed it as well. Agreed, there wasn't enough Gretel. She was a really interesting/terrifying character.

    I can't wait for The Coldest War to come out.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Gretel gets a lot more screentime in the second one :)

    ReplyDelete
  3. Well hello there! In your blog entry did you use the information from any extra researches or these are fully your exclusive conclusions? Waiting forward to hear your answer.

    ReplyDelete

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