Monday, July 23, 2012

“Bitter Seeds” by Ian Tregillis (Orbit/Tor)


The Milkweed Triptych Begins

The year is 1939. Raybould Marsh and other members of British Intelligence have gathered to watch a damaged reel of film in a darkened room. It appears to show German troops walking through walls, bursting into flames and hurling tanks into the air from afar.

If the British are to believe their eyes, a twisted Nazi scientist has been endowing German troops with unnatural, unstoppable powers. And Raybould will be forced to resort to dark methods to hold the impending invasion at bay.

But dealing with the occult exacts a price. And that price must be paid in blood.

It’s been a long time coming to these shores, but Bitter Seeds is finally available in the UK. The wait has been entirely worth it, too, as this is one of the best novels I’ve read this year. It’s original, inspired and engrossing from the first page until the last. It is a very assured, well-written, and accomplished debut.

First off, I thought the story and premise of Bitter Seeds were superb. In this world, the Nazis have been secretly developing a group of supernaturally-gifted, alchemically and physically engineered soldiers. These men and women are able to draw on their “Willenskrafte” – the power of their own wills, effectively, which – when combined with powerful electric currents – manifest as different super-powers/abilities, such as pyromancy, telekinesis, psionics, and so forth. When members of the British special operations division discover evidence of this, they at first don’t know what they’ve stumbled across. As they learn more, they must scramble to find a response in kind. At the same time, the Allies are getting a kicking from the Germans on almost all fronts.

I really loved the Nazis-and-supernatural premise – it’s a classic, sure, but Tregillis has done something fantastic and original with it. He name-checks the historical factions that were supposedly interested in harnessing the supernatural and occult to Hitler’s war efforts (as mentioned in many occult thrillers and also Hellboy), but has taken their goals and morphed and added to them.

Meanwhile, the British draw on their own dark powers, this time in the form of ancient occult forces that are pernicious and tricksy – not to mention bloodthirsty and harbouring extreme hatred and contempt for mankind. It’s not exactly an optimal working relationship, but one that is the under the purview of the members of Milkweed – the tiny, select government taskforce charged with the more esoteric strategies for combatting the Jerries’ advances.

I loved the characters involved, on both sides of the War. The British forces, from Raybould Marsh to his university friend and Milkweed colleague, Will Beauclarke, are all well-rounded and given proper story-arcs that mold them as the story progresses. The German super-powered soldiers, too, are complex, broken and frightening characters all in one go. They are also diverse. Klaus, the predominant German perspective we witness events through, is an interesting character. He is filled with pride in his achievements and fierce loyalty to the Fuhrer. At the same time, as with his fellow super-soldiers, there is a Stockholm Syndrome element to their relationships with Dr. von Westarp, the mad genius behind the program that brought them into being. He has tortured them, and experimented on them, and demands results and utter loyalty. Klaus’s sister and fellow super-soldier, Gretel, perhaps the most important character in the novel (she is, effectively, a precognitive sociopath), is creepy and sympathetic at the same time.

As the novel spans a few years, it’s interesting to see how the characters’ worldviews and motivations change and adapt to the new world they find themselves operating in. Marsh and Will, in particular, go through their own, private hells in addition to dealing with the Nazis and bolstering the war effort. Nobody comes away unscarred, and I think Tregillis has done a superb job of showing us how these characters evolve.

The novel is filled with gothic atmosphere and baroque detailing. The magic involved is particularly dark, and I hadn’t expected it. On dealing with the Eidolons, the creatures with which Will and the other British warlocks have to negotiate with, the practitioners are very serious about who and what these beings are. It is not, as some seem to think at the beginning, just a matter of conducting a ‘silly ritual’. As Will says:

“Rituals and ceremonies are a load of made up pageantry played out by loonies in robes dancing around bonfires on the solstice. A negotiation is the means for getting something done, for a price.”

And the prices they demand for helping the Allies grow exponentially.

The Allied characters are put in a position in which they must ask themselves, how high a price is too high for King and Country? How far will they allow themselves to be pushed in order to protect those they love, and also their people? It’s a fascinating story of desperation, patriotism and survival on a grand scale. It is also the human story of the characters – the tortured and brain-washed German super-soldiers, the British Milkweed personnel.

Bitter Seeds is brilliantly written, and filled with so many great passages – from brisk and realistic dialogue to lush, gothic description. The story kept me guessing until the end, and drops plenty of hints for things to come in the future. Tregillis’s prose is lush and fluid, and I frequently found myself caught up in the narrative. I read this in just four sittings (it would have been fewer, had life not got in the way), delighted every time I picked it up how easy it was to sink back into this world.

Overall, this is a superb novel, and a wonderful start to this series. As a debut, it’s spectacular. I loved everything about Bitter Seeds, and I definitely consider it among my best reads this year.

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