6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
1939. In the closing weeks of the Spanish Civil War, British intelligence agent Raybould Marsh is dispatched to meet an informant who claims to have vital information about some of Nazi Germany's top-secret weapons being field-tested in the conflict. The informant explodes in front of Marsh with no apparent cause. As the clock ticks down to war between Britain and Germany, it is discovered that Germany has developed technology that can turn certain, gifted individuals into super-beings, people who can turn invisible, manipulate fire or even predict the future.
Britain's fortunes in the war turn sour as the Germans seem to be constantly one step ahead of them, destroying the transports carrying out the evacuation of Dunkirk and striking down the radar towers that will be needed to protect the country from Luftwaffe bombing. But Britain is not completely unprotected, and the newly-formed Milkweed organisation has resources to call upon which dwarf even the powers of the German ubermensch. But these powers are not to be summoned lightly...
Bitter Seeds is Ian Tregillis' debut novel and is a brash, refreshing alt-history which sees Nazi superhumans and British warlocks battling to the death during WWII. It's a cool premise, generally well-handled with a large and complex story being effectively told through a small number of POV characters on both sides. However, if the story sounds too big to be contained within a single volume, you would be right. In an increasingly annoying trend in modern SFF publishing, Bitter Seeds is the first novel in a trilogy (dubbed The Milkweed Triptych) despite this fact not being mentioned anywhere on the cover or inside the book. The story doesn't come to an end or really any kind of conclusion, just screeches to a halt 350 pages in with a number of stories broken off mid-flow. The follow-up volumes will be entitled The Coldest War and Necessary Evil.
That out the way, Bitter Seeds works successfully on a number of levels. Characters are drawn pretty well, with British secret agent Raybould Marsh being an effective central character, driven by passion and rage, whilst his amateur magician friend, Will Beauclerk, makes a good foil for him. Will's story assumes greater importance as the novel proceeds, culminating in some shocking moments near the end of the book that hint that his role in the sequels will be very interesting indeed. The opposing characters, such as Klaus and his River Tam-like sister Gretel, are also intriguing characters, although the way Tregillis handles Gretel's potentially tension-destroying prescience (by making her a whimsical fruitcake who sometimes lets the Nazis lose battles due to the callings of A Higher Plan) seems to be dramatically unsatisfying, with Gretel working as a constant deus ex machina-in-residence, who may or may not defeat our heroes' plans at the whim of the author.
Elsewhere, Tregillis has done his homework, with WWII Britain described in convincing detail and atmosphere, even if the book's (relatively) slim page count means that some elements need to be skipped or drawn only in broad strokes. His alteration of history is well-conceived but is a little inconsistent: at first it appears that the Nazi superhumans will be providing explanations for real oddities in the war (like the ease with which the German armoured columns passed through the supposedly impenetrable Ardennes Forest), but later the outcome and course of the war shifts very dramatically away from the historical, and in fact becomes credence-stretching by the time we get to the end of the novel. This is fair in that it reflects the tone and plot of the novel, as supernatural forces become increasingly prevalent in their impact on the world, but those who prefer their alt-history to be more closely tied to real events may be underwhelmed as the book deviates radically from established history by the end.
Tregillis has a nice way with words, particularly in descriptive prose, but this is inconsistent. Nice, flowing prose is replaced by a more prosaic, infodump-heavy mode with little forewarning, increasingly favouring the latter as the novel progresses. This is disappointing as Tregellis' writing is what lifts the book above more plot-driven WWII alt-histories by the likes of Harry Turtledove and John Birmingham, but as the book continues to unfold his prose becomes more ordinary and less engaging.
All of that said, the book is short, fast-paced and, for all its faults, remains something of a page-turner. It is the finely-judged character interrelationships, particularly the increasingly tense friendship between Raybould and Will and the fraught sibling relationship of Klaus and Gretel, which defines the novel and leaves the reader eager to read on into the next novel.
Bitter Seeds (***½) fails to live up to its full potential, but remains an effective and readable debut novel. It is available now in the USA and on import in the UK.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
There's a trend recently for books about the backroom specialists whose genius helped win the war for the allies - see for instance Churchill's Wizards: The British Genius for Deception 1914-1945. I suppose this may have been triggered by revelations about Bletchley Park. It's matched, perhaps, by books about the achievements of wartime German science such as Hitler's Scientists: Science, War and the Devil's Pact.
Tregillis has cleverly blended these genres to produce an original fictional treatment of an alternate world where attempts to produce an army of German supermen (and women) meet their match in Britain's resort to warlockery, coordinated by a secret section in the Admiralty. This is an audacious concept which, on the whole, he pulls off very well. Magic is not without cost - the research efforts of the (real) enemies in the Second World War gave rise to technologies that still threaten us, as, in this book, do their fictional occult counterparts. I particularly liked the parallel developments in England and Germany - both of which start with the recruitment of needy children, that in England done in a much kindlier way than in Germany (at least, so it seems).
This is an entertaining, page turning story, which I have just had to sit down and finish, and I'd highly recommend it. I hope that more is to come from Tregillis.
I only had two quibbles with it. First (and I know I'm about to sound like a huffy pedant) though large parts of the book are set in England, the (American) author hasn't quite, as it were, "localised" things enough. As an English reader that bothered me slightly, but I had to think about the issue quite carefully. I admit (reluctantly) that I can't object to - for example - the use of "sidewalk" for "pavement" or to an idiom like "they turned left onto Shaftesbury" (dropping the "Avenue"). An American author describing events in Britain (or Germany, or Mars, for that matter) is going to use idioms familiar to him. Fine so far. But I think that a different standard applies where an author puts words into his characters' mouths and that he should - for example - take care not to use "gotten" for "got", or pay attention in some of the cases where the forms of verbs apparently differ (I never realised that this was actually the case, but when you see "teared" instead of "tore" you realise how tricky this stuff can get). Equally, I'm pretty sure that a wedding in London in the 1930s could not have taken place in a private garden (I don't think it would be legal to do that even now).
These are only tiny details, but they did - for me - undermine the overall (excellent) effect.
Secondly I was left slightly baffled by a couple of plot strands that seemed to go nowhere. Who was the strange figure with the beard and scar who turned up a at night and vanished into thin air? There was a lot made of him but I didn't understand who he was or what his point was. A loaded gun, on the wall, that was, in effect, never fired. I was also unclear about Gretel's motivation (I won't go into details as they would be spoilers). Maybe these are hooks for sequels - or perhaps I'm just being dim!
Anyway, to summarise, a wonderful book, it deserves to be read widely, I hope that more follow from this author (including, perhaps, a direct sequel?)
Sequel is on its way - The Coldest War - with the third part to come after. Can't wait!
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 5 March 2013
I went through Bitter Seeds and its sequel, The Coldest War, in the space of a weekend: Tregillis has put together what was for me a compulsive page-turner.
The more I read of British realpolitik in the 20th century, the more I can be convinced that the Allies weren't a group of wonderful, clean people but were forced into all sorts of moral quandaries, whether battling the Nazis or the threat of a Communist future. It's therefore congruent with that view that Tregillis' two sides are both engaged in horrific activity, whether it's the British necromancers and the sacrifices they require, or the experiments to make literal Nazi supermen.
It's also interesting that (because of the turn of events in these books) the US is marginalised. You might almost think that this was the product of wishful thinking by an Englishman, except that Tregillis is American (which you'll notice from the occasional slips - sidewalk instead of pavement, the verb 'to table' meaning to put something aside, rather than bring it to the centre of discussion, and so on - these can be distracting, but the books aren't exactly riddled with them, and I noticed fewer and fewer as the book went on).
This is a gloomy read. Whereas Stross's The Atrocity Archives is quite light in tone, there's grim nastiness on almost every page of Bitter Seeds; if there's a continuum where you have clockwork-steampowered-Nazi zombies fighting teenage vixens in Sucker Punch, and then evil Nazis on the Moon in the Atrocity Archives, Bitter Seeds is quite a long way further over in the sad and miserable end.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 31 July 2010
For those of you who haven't been keeping track, Ian Tregillis' Bitter Seeds is the last book I was assigned to read by George R. R. Martin for losing our second NFL wager. GRRM has done pretty good by me since I lost that first bet, so I was actually looking forward to reading this book.
Here's the blurb:
It's 1939. The Nazis have supermen, the British have demons, and one perfectly normal man gets caught in between.
Raybould Marsh is a British secret agent in the early days of the Second World War, haunted by something strange he saw on a mission during the Spanish Civil War: a German woman with wires going into her head who looked at him as if she knew him.
When the Nazis start running missions with people who have unnatural abilities--a woman who can turn invisible, a man who can walk through walls, and the woman Marsh saw in Spain who can use her knowledge of the future to twist the present--Marsh is the man who has to face them. He rallies the secret warlocks of Britain to hold the impending invasion at bay. But magic always exacts a price. Eventually, the sacrifice necessary to defeat the enemy will be as terrible as outright loss would be.
Alan Furst meets Alan Moore in the opening of an epic of supernatural alternate history, the tale of a twentieth century like ours and also profoundly different.
As a paranormal alternate history yarn, Ian Tregillis tinkers with the history of WWII and its genesis. The author takes us back to Spain during the Civil War, while the bulk of the action takes place in Great Britain and Germany. Tregillis has an eye for historical details, and his narrative truly makes the reader feel as if they're right there. His style is evocative without being too dense, and he managed to capture the essence of Spain, France, England, and Germany in a beautiful manner.
The only aspect of this novel which sort of kept nagging at me was the total absence of the pogroms and the entire Jewish angle of WWII. Considering just how important what came to be known as the Holocaust was and still echoes down the decades since the end of the war, it felt odd -- to say the least -- not to see a single mention of this atrocious genocide.
Other than that, however, Bitter Seeds makes for compulsive reading! The pace flows extremely well, and there is not a dull moment throughout. Following Marsh and the rest of those working on Operation Milkweed trying to puzzle out how to face and defeat the German superhuman soldiers was quite a treat. Another facet which I found appealing is that the author attempts to imbue the story with as much realism as possible, be it with the warlocks' magic (which takes a heavy toll and requires a blood price for every spell) or the supernatural abilities of von Westarp's children.
The narrative is broken down into a number of POVs, with the principals being that of Raybould Marsh, Klaus, and William Beauclerk. This allows readers to see events unfold through the eyes of both the Allies and the Nazi war efforts, as well as the warlocks' involvement. Still, as interesting as these points of view ultimately are, it's the enigmatic gypsy-born German seer Gretel who takes the cake as the most fascinating character of this book. I found myself looking forward to any scene featuring her and was seldom disappointed. Though Tregillis only offers us a glimpse of her psyche and her powers, the ending really makes me want to know what will occur next.
The blurb can be a little underwhelming, I know. But do give Ian Tregillis' Bitter Seeds a chance and you won't regret it. As things stand, in this house at least, it's the speculative fiction debut of the year.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 27 March 2014
This book is definitely 'different' but wasn't as much fun, or as interesting, as I hoped it would be. I will give it 3 stars, mainly for an original premise. I won't bother seeking out the rest of the series though. Too many better more rewarding books to read.
It reads as fairly standard WWII spies versus the enemy type fiction, but the characterisation to me is too simplistic and cliched. There isn't enough fine detail in the writing and its a bit too 'Boys Own' for my liking. We just don't get to the real feelings and motivations, beyond some pretty broad brush stroke stuff.
The main premises are around German wonder-science on the one hand (the 'evil' X-men as mentioned in other reviews) and British 'dealing with Outsiders' Warlocks. Both these sides were actually poorly explained, and I was disappointed that the 'magic' side was just negotiating/buying services at an increasingly awful price that we were reluctantly willing to pay. The characters (German and British) were pretty much a standard set of stereotypes and the main hero the most disappointing of all, with nothing much to offer
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 7 October 2013
I didn't really know what to expect here, for once I downloaded without reading any reviews, purely based on the blurb; WWII, Alternate history, Nazi supermen and eldritch gods, what's not to like? Fortunately, for a debut, it holds together rather well; good plot and nicely realised characters who certainly have their fair share of flaws, and the author certainly runs them through the mill. Once I read this I went on to read the rest of the series back-to-back, and the three books tie together nicely.
My only minor criticism is that an English, rather than English-speaking, sub-editor should have looked at all three books; the constant use of American terms in 1940s London had a jarring effect, dragging me out of the narrative on more than one occasion; I started looking out for the word "faucet" in particular (this particular leaky TAP gets mentioned quite a few times), and an Englishman would never "boost" a car or use a diaper on his children. Its a shame because in general he gets a lot of details right.
on 11 January 2014
Ian Tregillis is an author I have only just discovered after reading favourable reviews of his more recent offering "Something More Than Night". When I learned of the premise of Bitter Seeds I bought into it immediately. Nazi Supermen Vs English Warlocks is a great concept and one that Tregills brings to the page with panache. The three main POV characters are drawn well enough and Tregillis does a decent job of not rendering the British as clean cut, righteous heroes firmly on the side of good, so much so in fact I was surprised to find that the German, Klaus, became my favourite character as the story progressed.
The book unfolds over a 2 and a half year period, during which the established history of WW2 is turned on its head and a lot happens to the characters on the page. The biggest issue I had with the story was related to the magic system. The warlocks 'magic' stems from their negotiations with supernatural creatures known as Eidolon's. These creatures facilitate the warlocks abilities, but at a price - a price which I was surprised to read that our Warlock POV character was willing to pay quite readily. We learn of how this affects him after the fact but the ease with which he agrees to it unsettled me a little.
For the most part the 'mundane' Nazi's are the stereotypical characters we are used to seeing in movies. Mad Doctors, and ruthless officers. Tregillis doesn't really dwell too much on those however and does a good job of making us rootl for Klaus and his sister Gretel who are actually Roma characters brought into the 'Supermen' program at young age and who are therefore subject to Nazi prejudice themselves since they do not represent Hitlers Ayrian ideal.
Overall the book is a satisfying page turner and I am looking forward to reading the sequel which is winging its way to me right now....
on 20 June 2013
The fact that part of the primeval soup of Nazi ideology had its origins in German occultism, and that some of the senior Nazis were themselves interested in, shall we say, esoteric pursuits, has inspired a number of writers, from the trivial (Dennis Wheatley) to the great (Thomas Pynchon) to the workmanlike (Charles Stross). So here is Ian Tregillis with a first novel which mixes occult, the Nazis and the Second World War again. What's it like?
It's not bad, in fact, and part of the reason is that Tregillis works hard to create a realistic WWII setting, with a back-story which extends over the previous twenty years, in both Britain and Germany. The main characters are well-drawn, even if some of the minor ones are mere stereotypes, and the story as a whole has a moral complexity to it that is refreshing after too many black and white WWII narratives. Don't mess with magic, might be the informal sub-title of the book, or at least if you do be prepared for terrible consequences.
It would be better, though, if the author had left it there. As it is, we get an alternative history of the war itself, as well as the setting-up of an entire alternative history of the twentieth century. Sometimes this is reasonable (a British disaster at Dunkirk was entirely possible) but sometimes it's not clear whether the story is alternative history or just bad research. No country had a long-range precision-bombing capability in 1941, for example, any more than the Red Army had the ability to overrun Europe at that time. And it's hard to credit that a handful of supernaturally gifted Germans (whose powers are never really explained) could somehow have altered the course of an entire war involving millions of combatants.
This is, in other words, the kind of book for which the term "promising" was coined. We'll have to wait and see if the author can fulfil the promise, not just in the sequels (already out) but in other areas as well.
on 10 May 2013
The book is definitely captivating and good to read.
I cannot speak much about the artistic value, since I have no taste, but it was certainly
easy to read.
The genre has been established a while ago but this implementation is worth praising.
I liked the way the characters were shown and developed, real and round people, not
Various points of view just add to the story and are not confusing in this case.
The story line starst time-line compatible to us and then it diverges, interesting to see
the differences and I think they are well thought-out (USA not joining the war, radar destroyed)
The mood is definitely grimm and tragic, differently so than in history but appropriately so, considering the
It is really interesting and partially horrifyingto see and think about the moral choices presented to those people,
especially on the UK side. As to the Nazi superhumans, you can think how cool it would be to be one or to
have your country defended by some, but would you be able to have to sacrifice hundreds of children to death
and torture, to achieve it? Would you want to be go through torture from the young years, to be the one survivor
from dozends, to achieve superpowers? That is a very good quandary, considering that the superheroes from
many (most) other books come into their powers very easily, preferably from the start (similar sacrifice was
visible in the Wiedźmin - Witcher books)
The motif of the clairvoyant psychopath is new for me and one that is really unnerving.
I really like the book, now am reading the second one and hope the last will come out soon.
on 19 March 2013
The blurb for this book sounded so cool I couldn't wait to read it. It sounds a little like X-Men meets Lovecraft and, in some ways, it is. But it is also much, much darker. Starting in 1920, Tregillis introduces us to his main characters as children, some orphaned by the Great War. What I really liked about this book was that, despite the potential for it to lurch into comic book territory, it treats its subject matter with respect even when it's drawing on elements of science fiction, fantasy and horror, and it always, always places the characters first and foremost - which I found pleasantly surprising considering the Hollywood aspect of its USP.
His main characters are both British and German, and they are all fully fleshed out individuals, none of whom overstay their welcome, and all of whom you want to know more about. He doesn't invite you to favour one side or the other - all motives are shades of grey, and each side is seemingly capable of despicable acts. So clever is he with his characterisation that my favourite character in the book was the one who had the least 'screen time', Gretel, the German orphan who can see the future. His story is somewhat episodic in nature, covering the period 1939 to 1941, and leaves much to the imagination, often jumping back into the story to tell of the aftermath of certain events. Being effectively an alternate history tale, the effect his characters have on real-life events can be quite chilling.
At no time does Tregillis play it for laughs. This is very much a 'what if?' novel, rather than a crash-bang blockbuster. The action, when it comes, is frightening and brutal, and the way he shows his characters dealing with the consequences of their actions is wholly believable. However, in one particular case, that these characters would even consider such actions in the first place is a little debatable.
This is Tregillis's first novel, and the first in his 'Milkweed Triptych', and it is an very good start.