BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In an alternate World War II, the supermen (and women) of the Third Reich are opposed by the hastily discovered and drafted warlocks of the British Empire.
PROS: Excellent concept; consistently action packed and entertaining; excellent set of characters; good narration.
CONS: The alternate history is a bit inconsistent in its credulity; problems with the ending make it feel incomplete.
BOTTOM LINE: A striking and sharp beginning to the Milkweed triptych.
Bitter Seeds is the debut novel from Ian Tregillis where, in the wake of and alternate World War I, a German doctor devises a plan to to change the course of history by experimenting on war orphans. Two decades later, in the Spanish Civil War, on the doorstep of World War II, his superhuman experiments are unleashed. Raybould Marsh, agent for the British secret service, discovers the glimmerings of the threat, and is instrumental in helping recruit England’s response to the German Gotterelektrongruppe. It’s Warlocks versus Battery powered Supermen, in a World War II that goes very differently.
The major characters on either side of Bitter Seeds are the mundane, normal Raybould Marsh, agent for the British secret service, and Klaus, one of the successful experiments in the German superhuman program. Although we get a couple of other points of view (Raybould’s friend Will, one of the Warlocks, particularly), the events of the war flow from their perspectives.
Through Klaus, we get an intimate view of the Gotterelektrongruppe, from his mysterious future-seeing sister Gretel to the more flashy and demonstrative supermen such as the pyrokinetic Reinhardt, and the rest of Doctor Von Westarp’s creations. Not all of them are as successful and “complete” as Klaus and Reinhardt, and the urge and desire to earn the Doctor’s attention is a major subplot and driving force in nearly all of the members of the Gotterelektrongruppe. Their relationships with each other and with the German war effort are very well done. They are presented as a sometimes fractious family under Doctor Von Westarp, a dynamic works exceedingly well.
Through Raybould, we get to see the English slowly piece together the information and come up with a unique solution and response: use Warlocks like Will. In this universe, Warlocks gain their powers by making bargains with extradimensional, inhuman entities called Eidolons. If you want to change reality, which is as good as a definition of magic as any, you summon the Eidolons and make a deal, often with blood, to change it. The problem is, the costs of such deals quickly escalate, leading the English to terrible moral dilemmas. The law of unintended consequences weighs heavily on the English side as well. This is a novel where the black morality of the German side is mirrored by a rather tarnished grey on the English side.
My favorite character, although we don’t have a true point of view from her, has to be Gretel. It’s difficult to write a character who is prescient; it’s problematic for the author and reader and it’s problematic from a plot perspective. How do you avoid such a character becoming solely a deux ex machina? Tregillis gives Gretel personality, weaknesses and good characterization. The fact that she is manipulating the characters, and even the German war machine, to her own ends is credibly well done. She makes the novel (and the series, really) what it is and I can’t imagine Bitter Seeds without her in it.
Above and beyond these world building and character building strengths, the writing is crisp, clear and entertaining, either on the page or listened to. The novel is as much action-packed thriller as it is fantasy or science fiction, and the action sequences come to life. Some of the best set-pieces in the novel are tense, action-packed and brilliant in their execution.
The narration of the audiobook version of Bitter Seeds is good, with the narrator (Kevin Pariseau) ably handling the suite of characters and keeping the listener engaged with the story and plot. I give particular credit to the narrator for distinct and well rendered accents on both sides of the conflict.
There are significant “first novel” weaknesses, however. Listening to this book again, after having read it already, brought those weaknesses into sharper relief. I don’t buy all of the aspects of the alternate history that he lays out here. The fact that history goes differently in the War, significantly so, is a plus. It would have been easy to make this a secret history and change absolutely nothing about the course of the war. But some of those resultant changes are simply not plausible to me. Another major weakness is that the novel abruptly ends with a lot of plots and storylines left hanging in the air with fates of several characters less than clear. While the sequel (which has a time jump) does backfill this, it’s a jarring end. It’s messy and it’s entirely unnecessary.
Though not a perfect novel by any means, Bitter Seeds takes a relatively tired trope (an alternate World War II) and manages to infuse it with life, spark, and invention. It’s ultimately entertaining. Gretel already knows if you are going to pick up this book. You wouldn’t want to disappoint her, now would you?