Monday, April 18, 2011

Book Review: Bitter Seeds, by Ian Tregillis

Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis is a novel that takes place during the Second World War and features the struggle of the British Secret Service against a new threat: a Nazi experiment to give a group of teenagers superpowers. Faced with a power they cannot hope to oppose, the Secret Service calls in a group of British warlocks for assistance.

The story follows three main characters: Raybould Marsh, a genius Secret Service agent who is built like a boxer; Will Beauclerk, a failed warlock and school friend of Marsh's; and Klaus, a (probably) orphaned young man who was one of the children who were subjected to the Nazi experiments and is now a living weapon for the German army.

The story starts in the Spanish Civil War with the larger war brewing in Europe. Marsh is sent to make contact with a German scientist who is defecting. The man is terrified of something he has seen. Marsh meets the man in an inn, but before they can escape, the man bursts into flames. This leaves Marsh with nothing but a few scraps of burned film, a corner of a photograph of a farm building, and some charred notes that don't give a clue of what is happening.

Nevertheless, the British manage to salvage enough of the film to find that it contains bizarre footage of young men and women with wires running from their scalps to battery packs on their waists, each displaying a terrifying, seemingly supernatural power. The video reminds Marsh of a friend of his from school, so he calls in Will Beauclerk, who, as a warlock of sorts, may be able to offer some insight into the events in the tape.

The novel is a deft blend of supernatural and mundane, as the author juggles the bizarre workings of the German superscience and the terrifying Lovecraftian power summoned up by the warlock and blends it with the human cost of war. Tregillis does a good job of letting us see his characters as humans. None of them are blameless, and each will have to face both mundane and supernatural horrors of war before the novel is over.

I enjoyed the way Tregillis contrasted the twisted science of the German supersoldier program against the arcane bargaining of the British warlocks. The warlocks' art feels like medieval depictions of magic, where a magician would make a deal with a spirit, who would then carry out the deed. In Bitter Seeds these spirits are called Eidolons, and the price they demand for their services figures largely in the novel. The Eidolons are alien and terrifying creatures, perhaps familiar to fans of cosmic horror, but appropriate in this novel.

The Nazi science, on the other hand, is all the more depraved for its lack of the supernatural. If an Eidolon seems evil, it is because it does not think as humans do. The Nazi mad doctor, however, is merely experimenting on people with new forms of electricity, and in doing so he proves to be the most monstrous character in the story.

Fair warning: Tregillis doesn't pull any punches in Bitter Seeds, so be prepared to see the characters suffer. Also, if you didn't like River in the TV series Firefly, you're really not going to like Gretel in Bitter Seeds. She's like a twisted version of River.

The only downsides were that the characters, while well-developed, were not terribly likable, and that the novel is clearly the first in a trilogy, as many questions are left unanswered when the book ends. Given all the elements that Tregillis is juggling, the ending feels rather abrupt.

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