by Ian Tregillis
Edited by Patrick Nielsen Hayden
Cover Artist: John Jude Palencar
Review by Drew Bittner
Tor Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765321503
Date: 13 April 2010 List Price $25.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Links: Interview: Ian Tregillis / Show Official Info /
Bitter Seeds, by Ian Tregillis, opens with children being taken to the farm of a Nazi scientist, who is trying to build supermen. The process exacts a hideous toll in lives, but the payoff will be truly incredible.
Meanwhile, in England, a young boy leads his street gang in a raid on a garden, only to be caught and redeemed by the garden's owner--a veteran who works for His Majesty in a very special capacity.
Thus are the seeds planted that will eventually pit Raybould Marsh against the fruit of Dr. von Westarp's twisted genius: Reinhardt, a living flamethrower; Heike, who can turn invisible; Klaus, who can walk through walls; and his sister Gretel, who has the most devastating power of all. Marsh manages to secure proof of these technological wonders--the Gotterelektrongruppe--from a defector, but even so, the British have no clue how to stop them.
As war breaks out in 1939, the Nazi blitzkrieg has incredible success, sweeping all defenders before it. Their attacks are unnaturally accurate, inflicting horrific damage and demoralizing their enemies.
Desperate for an answer to the Nazi supermen, Marsh calls upon his old friend Will Beauclerk, whose upbringing was in its own way unnatural. Will (who introduces Marsh to his future wife, Olivia) has knowledge of Britain's reclusive community of warlocks--those eccentrics who contact entities known as Eidolons and "negotiate" for favors. Eidolons are not benevolent, however; they hate mankind with a singular passion but lack a means for finding humanity among all the planets in the universe. Will warns Marsh that calling upon the Eidolons is a short-term help at best. And the prices they demand will only increase...
Marsh undertakes a near-suicidal mission through war torn France, until he comes upon Gretel waiting for him along his route. He takes her prisoner and returns to England, where Will contacts the Eidolons to figure out how the Germans did what they did. The result of this experiment is startling, especially when they learn Gretel didn't exactly plan to stay.
Matters go from bad to worse for the British. The Luftwaffe is able to eliminate the Royal Air Force's tactical advantages, even as the German army cuts off the retreating British and French forces--a development that results in disaster for the nascent Allies.
The incessant bombing of London forcing Marsh and Liv to send their daughter Agnes to the country for safety. Meanwhile, the German supermen have their own schisms, with Klaus realizing that Gretel is playing her own game independent of the war. But why is Gretel interested in Marsh...and who is the mysterious scarred figure who appears and disappears at will?
A tragedy drives Marsh to a new insight--and the war takes on a much more dangerous aspect, when he thinks about new ways to harness the Eidolons. It holds the promise of ending the war...but as Will warns, there is always a price.
Ian Tregillis delivers a dynamite first novel in Bitter Seeds. It's difficult to describe this work in brief--there are very few "weird war" stories that could be used as guideposts--but Tregillis deftly applies his experience in writing about super-powered humans (in his contributions to the Wild Cards series) with a Lovecraftian take on magic that has fascinating (and horrifying) potential.
For my money, Tregillis has invented his own genre, with its own mythos and demigods.
Indeed, the Gotterelektrongruppe comes to seem almost like Greek gods in the way they bicker and plot against each other, with Fate lurking in the background, while the British take their well-known stoic reserve to inhuman levels.
Marsh is an everyman caught up in impossible events. He is a field agent for British intelligence, common-looking but extremely smart and resourceful; he is perhaps the most fully realized character in the story, racing to save his nation and enduring the most traumatic heartbreak. His story arc is a powerful and emotional one, echoing the traumas endured by the British as the German juggernaut draws closer.
Will Beauclerk is a great character as well, overcoming his dissolute nature in order to serve his nation. Problem is, the end point of his help could damn not only England but the entire world. He represents the poignant despair of those like Oppenheimer, who helped create the atomic bomb--the power unleashed is beyond understanding or comparison, and control of that awesome power will rest in the hands of those unprepared to use it wisely. His own journey contains sorrows nearly as great as Marsh's.
Klaus, meanwhile, fears that his dangerous, enigmatic sister cannot be trusted. For all that she is indispensable to the Nazi war effort, she plays a role in some terrible outcomes; he isn't sure of her ultimate loyalty and doesn't know how to assuage his doubts. Gretel, for her part, seems to be working on an agenda of her own, with some very specific requirements in mind.
How these characters and others--such as Stephenson, Marsh's surrogate father, and von Westarp, the archtypical Nazi scientist--interact is a fascinating dance of history gone wrong and possibilities lingering like nightmares on the edges of perception. Tregillis weaves a powerful narrative in this alternate world, and given that this is only the start of a trilogy, there's surely much more to come.