British sorcerers versus German supermen in an alternate history WWII: what’s not to love? Actually, the premise left me nonplussed initially. Sorcerers v. supermen seems a little like grist for post-role-playing discussions turned story premise for nothing more than the rule of cool. I remain leery of alternate history as a sub-genre, and I’m far more interested in WWI than WWII, to the extent I even care about modern history at all. Absent getting my grubby, little hands on an ARC of The Coldest War (book 2 in Tregillis’ Milkweed Triptych), I probably never would have read Bitter Seeds. And that would have been a crying shame, because Tregillis has crafted an incredible story.
The premise is simple, treading that well-trodden ground of the Germans’ WWII-era “scientific” efforts coming to fruition. Dr. von Westarp’s experiments on his “children” (he paid well for war orphans in the days after WWI) have produced a handful of supermen (and superwomen) able to harness their “willenskrafte” (literally their will, at its highest level). Each has a power of his or her own—one can fly; one is a human torch; one can make himself insubstantial; and most powerful of all, one can see the future. They’re more gods than men, albeit tethered to a WWII-era battery via wires implanted in their skulls. Central to the story are twins Klaus (the aforementioned ghost) and Gretel (the precog).
Britain gets its first inkling of the German program when British Intelligence officer Raybould Marsh witnesses a would-be defector burst into flames in the middle of a hotel bar in civil war-torn Spain. Between what Marsh saw and the scraps they are able to piece together, the British decide they need a weapon of their own to counter the German supermen. They fight back by their own supernatural means, not by saying “Wenn ist das Nunnstuck git und Slotermeyer? Ja! Beiherhund das Oder die Flipperwaldt gersput!” but by recruiting sorcerers. Enter Marsh’s college friend Will, a “warlock” able to summon eldritch abomination Eidolons to pervert the laws of nature (but never to directly kill). The Eidolons demand a high cost, however: human blood, and more of it the greater the task asked of them.
Tregillis’ premise works for a few reasons. First, Tregillis is a very gifted writer. Much of the prose is hauntingly beautiful, the early introductions of the main characters are really effective, and the story succeeds as spy fiction (this one is tough; I was disappointed in all the mystery-spec fic I previously read). But perhaps more importantly, Tregillis obviously thought very hard about the implications of his changes to history, both to the events of the war and to the human condition. The Germans’ secret weapons provide both an explanation for what did happen (it is they who carve a path through the Ardennes) and lead to divergences that change the entire course of the war (intelligence provided by Gretel thwarts the evacuation at Dunkirk). Tregillis thinks seriously about what it would have meant to a desperate Britain for Germany and Britain each to have super-weapons the other side only vaguely understood and for which no effective deterrent existed. One of my primary criticisms of alternate history is its tendency toward utopian thinking, which I find both boring and foolish. I think Tregillis is correct here in his estimation that his changes would lead to very nasty consequences. It makes for a dark world. He also effectively deals with the basic problem of having a character who can see the future by making Gretel completely inscrutable.
The biggest stumbling point in Bitter Seeds is that a fair amount of what we’re shown doesn’t make immediate sense. Compounding the problem, they’re presented in such a way I had difficulty deciding whether they were the result of slopping reading, slopping writing, or just foreshadowing. As it turns out, they’re the latter, mostly foreshadowing for The Coldest War. I can report now that I’ve read The Coldest War that those mysteries are explained there, albeit sometimes rather obliquely. If I treated it as a standalone novel I couldn’t give Bitter Seeds 5 stars, but it deserves them taken in conjunction with its sequel.
5 of 5 Stars.