First Line: Murder on the wind: crows and ravens wheeled beneath a heavy sky, like spots of ink splashed across a leaden canvas.
I had totally forgotten about Ian Tregillis’ Bitter Seeds until it arrived at the library and I read the jacket flap which immediately had me excited to read it. The book features the creation of literal Nazi Supermen, super-powered Nazi soldiers experimented on as children, facing off against a talented everyman spy who just so happens to be backed up by a small cabal of British magicians. It is an alternate history title, a sub-genre I don’t flirt with too much, that features an inventive plot, dynamic characters, and a grim tone that serves the setting, and subject matter, perfectly.
Bitter Seeds isn’t a book that will leave you feeling good at its conclusion with the tone of the novel skirting closer to horror than anything else and the weight of historical background, the Blitz, combining with the dire actions taken by the British to defend their homeland engendering a growing sense of dread that reaches its ultimate conclusion during the novel’s denouement. The grim tone is enhanced by the characters who, for the most part, are likable (even the bad guys have their moments) but are all irreparably changed, damaged even, by the actions war forces upon them. Tregillis does a great job in the prologue of introducing the characters we will follow by sharing their early childhood moments. The arrival of the orphaned children on the Nazi farm is horrific and the off-camera fate of a sick child while chilling did call to mind the question as to whether the remaining children were really better off or not. The introduction of our ‘heroes’ Raybould Marsh and William echo the children on the Nazi side, both are also orphans; there is a less sinister tone.
Tregillis, in a particularly Hitchcockian mode, proves extremely adept at making sure all the most horrific scenes occurs off-camera. The most horrific deeps are never explained in gory detail and yet you are never left wondering exactly what it is that happened. That is a good thing since, while the British sorcerers are responsible for some heinous acts, the most sickening acts of cruelty and wanton disregard for human life occur on the Nazi. While those moments left my stomach unsettled what perhaps is even more frightening is the matter of fact way in which the characters on that side seem to deal with it. That sense of callousness hammers home the fact that Klaus, the main Nazi POV and one of the children experimented on, is victim of Nazi indoctrination grown accustomed to the horrors of his own existence to the point where the pain of others is a mostly distant thing.
On the British side the effect is very similar and in a nice bit of parallelism the horrors of the Nazi experiments have forced upon the beleaguered British the growing sense of that same disregard; though it is couched in terms of the greater did. The magic of the British sorcerers is one that requires blood to function. So, as the Blitz wears on, greater and greater sacrifices become necessary. We experience the horror of these sacrifices through William Beauclerk, a magician, and he becomes despite his participation in these sacrifices, one of the few human and sympathetic characters in the novel. William’s journey, though not apparent at first as the novel focuses strongly on the spy Raybould, becomes the linchpin experience that for me defined my emotional response to what I read. While many of the characters make you shudder, or feel sad or angry, William was the only one that really made me want to weep; if you’ll excuse a bit of hyperbole.
All in all Bitter Seeds is a fantastic, inventive read and a rather impressive debut novel. Much like his fellow Wild Cards alum Melinda Snodgrass, Tregillis’ work combines elements of both science and fantasy with a touch of Lovecraftian horror from beyond thrown in for good measure. With its real world rooting, dark tone, as well as its tragic and believable characters Bitter Seeds is one of my favorite reads of 2010 and I am excited to see where the remaining two books in the Milkweed Triptych go next.