Bitter Seeds: A dark story of a dark time in human history

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsIan Tregillis Milkweed Triptych 1. Bitter SeedsBitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis

Ian Tregillis takes the notion of an alternate history of World War II to new heights in his first novel, Bitter Seeds. The weapons Germany and England bring to bear on the conflict include not just men and guns, but also magical forces. Germany has developed psychic powers in certain individuals, powered by batteries wired into their brains; the powers vary from individual to individual, but include the ability to become invisible and impervious to weapons; the ability to see the future; and the ability to make external objects explode. On the other hand, the English have an ancient route to the inexplicable: a sort of magic that is really access to an alien race that will perform services in exchange for blood. Neither country really understands the forces with which it is reckoning, but neither cares in their desperate effort to win this all-out war.

There is much that is different about this war, and plenty that is the same. Churchill is still England’s prime minister. France is still invaded and conquered in virtually no time. England still suffers from the Blitz. But there doesn’t appear to be a preoccupation with a Final Solution in Germany; Dunkirk is a disaster for the English; and German bombing is not confined to London. The unraveling of the war is sudden and even shocking.

Bitter Seeds is apparently merely the opening of an epic of a supernatural alternate history and it is clear that this story is incomplete in many ways. There is a threat in England from the Eidolons — the alien race — that is unresolved in one specific as well as in the genuine overall threat posed by these creatures that are omnipresent but on a different plane, creatures who despise us but agree to help the English only to advance their own ends. The lengths to which England will go to develop this dangerous power is only hinted at in the conclusion to the book, but the way it chooses to use the aliens during the war does not bode well. The German scientific approach to psychic powers also seems open to further development, but again, the cost may be more than anyone is willing to pay. In many ways, this may be one of the most anti-war science fiction novels written since Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War.

The writing is more assured than one would expect of a first-time novelist. The plotting is skeletal, given the complexity of the tale, but it is sufficient; I expect that it will be fleshed out in further novels in the series. My only substantial problem with Bitter Seeds was that the characters seemed more like types than full-fledged people. There is the rich dilettante who proves to be the key to a certain strategy, and bravely comes through, surprising all who know him; the dedicated soldier who will do anything for King and Country; the evil German doctor who experiments on children and cavalierly discards those who do not perform to his satisfaction, a Mengele for the psychic set; and an angelic wife who stands by her husband regardless of his ill-treatment of her, understanding his grief and his commitment to his duty without a thought for herself. I’d like to see more depth in each of these characters, perhaps something unexpected from one of them now and then. That, too, might come in future novels as Ian Tregillis finds his way through his story.

Bitter Seeds is a promising first novel, a dark story of a dark time in human history, told with a substantial twist that does not change the basic fact that the twentieth century was a bloody one. I’m curious about what Tregillis will do to history next, and how — and if — his characters will survive.

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TERRY WEYNA, on our staff since December 2010, would rather be reading than doing almost anything else. She longs to be a full-time reviewer, critic, scholar and writer, but nonetheless continues to practice law as a civil litigator in California. Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor emeritus and writer Fred White, the imperious but aging Cordelia Louise Cat Weyna-White, and a forever-growing personal library that presently exceeds 15,000 volumes.

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