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Ian Tregillis
Bitter Seeds

Tor / Tom Doherty Associates
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-765-32150-5
Publication Date: 04-13-2010
352 Pages; $25.95
Date Reviewed: 05-08-2013
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2013

Index:  Science Fiction  Fantasy  Horror  Mystery  General Fiction  

It's natural to open up a book expecting the world, and not as we know it. Books offer us the world re-built to an author's specifications, some more than others. Ian Tregillis subverts most of the 20th century in 'Bitter Seeds,' the first volume of his Milkweed Triptych. In Germany, in 1920, Doctor Von Westarp is buying orphans. Those who survive his experiments will become a new breed of men and women. In England, a young Duke is indoctrinated into a family tradition of conversing with demons. As World War Two unfolds, these children and their peers inherit a very different earth from that upon which we walk.

Tregillis might seem to be working on a wide canvas here, and he is telling a big story, but he keeps a tight focus on a specific and very well-wrought cast of characters. On one side, we have the Gotterelektron-enhanced Nazi supermen and women, and on the other, a group of British Warlocks who negotiate for power with beings beyond all physical laws. Between the two, British spy Raybould Marsh tries to keep the world in one piece, which proves to be much harder in the Milkweed timeline than it was in ours.

Characters drive the action here, and there is a pretty big cast. The Nazis have Gretl, an enigmatic seer whose precognitive abilities drive a wedge in reality. Her brother, Klaus, can walk through walls. Reinhardt can start fires, while others have abilities both destructive and defensive — so long as their batteries are fully charged. Tregillis does a masterful job at creating characters who are drafted into the service of evil, but not so keen on as their masters. In some cases, the soldiers might have an edge on their supposed masters.
On assignment, Raybould sees evidence of their work, and manages to round up the British warlocks. Their work can provide an effective counter against the power of the Nazi supermen, but at a price for country and conscience. The World War Two that follows is darkly, entertainingly different from recorded history.

Tregillis works with an extreme economy and makes a lot of very difficult things very easy to read. He sets up two complex opposing forces and crafts Nazis who are entertaining and involving but authentically awful. He drenches everything in grey, with a British war effort that is willing to make dreadful decisions and Nazi warriors who are beyond the reach of the Reich. The oppositions are fascinating, complicated and engrossing.

Wrangling all this into a tight plot that wraps up quickly might seem impossible, but Tregillis pulls it off with admirable ease, delivering a novel that is satisfying in itself, even as it is a gateway to the next two segments, which take place in different times. 'Bitter Seeds' manages to create a reality that will wrap up the reader, one that's hard to simply step away from. The magic seems rather scientific, while the science seems mad and more than a little magical. Tregillis wields both science and magic, art and craft to re-create the world to his own design. It's immersive, exciting, fun and manages to make our dark world seem a little bit better by comparison, even if it is just by virtue of the existence of the novel itself.

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