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Monday, October 18, 2010

Review: Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis

Bitter Seeds – Ian Tregillis (Published 2010)
Genre: Science Fiction
Sub-genre: Alternate History (with supernatural elements)
Completed: October 2 2010

As a student and teacher of history I was always likely to be a sucker for this story. On the other hand, if the history was all wrong I would have been lost to it. Happily, Tregillis lured me in with his thoughtful and accurate use of the historical setting. He successfully grounds his supernatural alternate history in a firm base of thorough research. This is no history book, but Tregillis has done his homework in depicting World War II-era Europe, particularly Britain, in convincing detail. Yet by the end of the book it is clear that Tregillis is taking the historical events he clearly enjoys and respects in a very different direction.

In the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, British intelligence discovers the existence of the true German ubermensch. The Nazis have raised up gifted individuals with the ability to use a strange power source in order to do the impossible – walk through walls, manipulate fire and even see the future. Naturally, the British establish a force to address the danger and the Milkweed organization is born. However, recognizing their inadequacy, Milkweed allies with Britain’s warlocks, who offer a solution that the desperate government is forced to accept.

In spite of the wealth of historical detail Tregillis packs into the story he maintains a very poetic style that was emphasized particularly for me in the rhythm and flow of the audiobook reading (that cat is out of the bag). The strength of the writing belies the fact that this is Tregillis’ debut novel. He expertly weaves together an incredibly fast moving plot that never loses sight of his vividly drawn characters. At the heart of the story, Tregillis has latched onto Churchill’s willingness to win against the Nazis at any cost and explores the impact that such a victory has on those who bring it to fruition. That victory weighs particularly heavily on British agent Marsh and his lifelong friend Will.

The relationships between the characters are superbly developed, especially between Marsh and Will. The depiction of their relationship is utterly devoid of convenience or the kind of plot devices that force them into unlikely behaviour. Similarly, the relationship of the superhuman siblings Klaus and Gretel is appropriately unusual and conflicted. Tregillis wisely shows us the enigmatic Gretel primarily through the eyes of the brother who cares deeply for her (even as he comes to fear that she is manipulating him). Gretel would be beyond difficult for the reader to sympathise with if only seen from Marsh’s perspective. Suffice it to say, he ends up using the word ‘bitch’ a lot.

The challenging and believable development of these characters earns Tregillis his powerful ending. With so much built up emotion the conclusion to Bitter Seeds is heartbreaking, frightening and… abrupt. It is the first instalment of a trilogy and in no way is the story finished in this volume.

Bitter Seeds receives a richly deserved 4.5 stars. It is certainly the best debut novel that I have read this year. My only disclaimer is that I enjoy the historical period immensely, so Tregillis didn’t have to work too hard to engage me with his setting. I would describe it as a genuine page-turner, but I listened to it on audiobook.

Read it – if you love the mysteries and strange gaps that exist in the history of World War II, and you’d like to let a quality story-teller fill them.
Don’t read it – if you are utterly uninterested in the period of World War II, or you simply can’t stand being cliff-hangered!

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