The Coldest War is book 2 in alternate history series The Milkweed Triptych, and the sequel to Bitter Seeds. If you’ve come here to decide whether to read Bitter Seeds—do it!—I’ll still be here when you get back. If you’ve come here to decide whether The Coldest War builds on the potential of Bitter Seeds, then my recommendation remains unqualified. Bitter Seeds is the type of book that relies on its sequel to reach its full potential; The Coldest War explains the mysteries that left Bitter Seeds incomplete. The two biggest differences between Bitter Seeds and The Coldest War is that the latter is quite as bleak, and we never see inside the heads of the Soviets. Spoilers for Bitter Seeds (and minor spoilers for The Coldest War) abound ahead.
The Coldest War begins 20 years after the events in Bitter Seeds. History has now diverged considerably from our own. Britain’s gamble to end the war was successful, but at the cost of a Soviet continental Europe. With America trapped in an endless Depression (but with Nixon as president; the first rule of alternate history is: Nixon is always president), the Cold War pits a very overmatched Britain against an even larger USSR.
The protagonists from Bitter Seeds are back, albeit worse for the wear. Klaus and Gretel are war prisoners of the Soviets. Marsh is a cuckolded husband reduced to working as a gardener. Only Will, of all characters, is doing reasonably well, if also haunted by the past. But events pull Marsh and Will back into Milkweed’s orbit, and Gretel takes it upon herself to change the game.
Jumping forward 20 years between novels is extremely difficult to pull off, which is probably why we see so few authors even try it. That’s too bad. There are things you can’t explore without that kind of time frame. Thankfully, Tregillis nails it. He manages to convey the full weight of what the passage of time has meant to each character (except Gretel, of course, who remains inscrutable).
Tregillis respects his reader. A simple throwaway line is made about “the camps,” noting that the British have only a vague notion of them because the Soviets saw no need to publicize them and themselves found them useful. No more is needed to give a chill to a reader familiar with German and Soviet history. Things remain intrigue and suspense heavy, with occasional bursts of shocking action. The climax left me floored, if a bit worried about what it meant for the final book in the trilogy (there is quite literally nothing more I can say without it being a huge spoiler, except that my concerns were entirely allayed in book 3).
5 of 5 Stars.
Disclosure: I won an ARC of The Coldest War through First Reads.