Thursday, 19 April 2012

‘Bitter Seeds’ – Ian Tregillis (Tor/Orbit)

I don’t know about you but my reading seems to be as much (if more) about catching up with last years books as it is about reading this years crop. I do aim to keep up with current releases but, what with one thing and another, this is an aim that often sadly falls short of being a reality. There’s only so much room in the day after all, what I wouldn’t give for more time to read. Oh well…

This review then very much falls into the category of ‘books that I really should have read last year’. ‘Bitter Seeds’ was a book where all the feedback and reviews were overwhelmingly positive, a book that I just knew I’d be reading sooner or later. However, in a twist of ‘publishing fate’, ‘Bitter Seeds’ also falls into the category of ‘books to be published in 2012’. Tor initially published the book in the US and Orbit will be doing the honours in the UK later on this year (and possibly a little earlier than we think, we’ll see). In one fell swoop then I get to catch up on last year’s reading and be a little ahead of the game in 2012. Having read ‘Bitter Seeds’ I can now say that I really should have read it last year, what the hell was I doing not picking it up sooner? If you’re in a similar position then don’t hang around, pick up a copy of ‘Bitter Seeds’ and get reading right away. Seriously…

It’s 1939 and war is about to break out in Europe, a war that Germany is all set to win with their ‘supermen’, field operatives that can carry out missions by walking through walls and setting their targets on fire (amongst other things). British agent Raybould Marsh has seen evidence of this new threat at first hand with a contact bursting into flames as he is about to pass on vital information. Marsh knows the full extent of this threat and knows that there might only be one way of stopping it… Will Beauclerk is not only a good friend of Marsh’s but is also a warlock with access to a network of similar men across Britain. Super powered Nazism is about to come face to face with British occultism allied with powers that not of this dimension. Victory is uncertain for either side with the only certainty being that sacrifices will be asked of everyone. Can Raybould, Will or even the Nazi supermen meet the demands that are made of them?

I seem to be saying this an awful lot just recently (and I’ll admit that not having to commute means that I’m not stuck with books that I don’t enjoy) but ‘Bitter Seeds’ was yet another book that I couldn’t put down. Housework wasn’t done, my wife was stuck with a lot more kitchen stuff than she normally has to do. Sorry about that, I was reading ‘Bitter Seeds’ and didn’t want to stop. If that wasn’t bad enough, an advance copy of ‘The Coldest War’ arrived and I really did have to finish ‘Bitter Seeds’ so I could start reading that as well (there’ll be a review here fairly soon).
‘Enthralling’, ‘engrossing’, ‘thrilling’… These were a few of the words going through my head as I read ‘Bitter Seeds’. Let me tell you just why…

First of all, we’re talking about a book where super powered Nazis (with wires sticking out of their heads) are going up against Lovecraftian beings doing the bidding of British Warlocks. Tell me you didn’t just read that sentence and think, ‘wow, cool…’ Sounds like the sort of thing that Hellboy would be involved in doesn’t it?
Well, there’s no Hellboy here but everything else is set in place for bone crunching confrontations between enhanced humans and extra-dimensional beings, all set against the backdrop of a Europe at war. Going off at a slight tangent, I particularly enjoyed the way that Tregillis not only weaves his story into the historical background (making it all sound very plausible and part of events) but uses it to send the path of history running in a slightly different direction at times. It’s ‘alternate history’ done so cleverly that you don’t even realise you’re running down a different track.

Back to the supermen and their otherworldly opponents. Tregillis shows that he has an eye for the spectacular, on more than one level, with scenes that show just what the clever use of a relatively minor ability can do to a tank, a group of enemy combatants and even the entire Maginot Line. The beauty of it all lies in the fact that powers like being able to walk through a wall aren’t really that spectacular are they? Not when compared to what you see in comic books every day. Well that’s where you’re wrong, Tregillis constantly surprises you with what the Nazis can do and it makes for gripping reading.
Same deal with the Eidolons (Britain’s otherworldly allies); they are perhaps not as awe inspiring but you can’t help but hold your breath when they enter the field.
It’s not just the fight scenes that make for compulsive reading. The use of these powers sends the plot in some very interesting directions with the march to victory switching between parties on a regular basis. Things move so quickly that you have to keep reading to follow it all, you don’t dare miss a word.

It would be doing the book a real disservice though to paint it as a straight fight between powers though, no matter how well it is done on the page. For me, the real strength of ‘Bitter Seeds’ (and maybe where this title was born) lies in it’s exploration of occult warfare and the price that must be paid for victory. The Eidolons demand blood sacrifice, for their assistance, and this places a great deal of stress on Beauclerk in particular as he goes to ever greater lengths to give what has been asked for. This brings Will into constant conflict with Raybould’s view that anything that helps the war effort is a good thing. It’s not going to end well but I want to see how this plays out.
Even the Nazis have to make sacrifices of one kind or another, namely their humanity in the face of the changes that they have undergone. They are above the rest of humanity but that comes at the price of their freedom and the machinations of the psychopath pre-cog Gretel. It doesn’t matter if you can set fire to a man with your mind, you’re still not safe and Tregillis does well to feed this into the air of insecurity that surrounds the plot. No-one is safe and it seems that could still be worse to come…

‘Bitter Seeds’ is nothing short of an awesome read as far as I’m concerned. It’s a testament to what Tregillis has done here that I’m already of the opinion that he keeps writing then I’ll keep reading his work. Can you tell I’m excited? Read ‘Bitter Seeds’ and you’ll see why.

Ten out of Ten

P.S. I'm using the US mass market cover art here, Orbit have yet to release the cover art for their edition (although I've seen it already and it does look rather fine).


SQT said...

Wow. Ten out of ten. I *just* got the sequel to this and I can see I am going to have to bump this up (way up) on my TBR list.

bascule said...

For some reason, the sequel was available on audiobook download from Audible back in January. I got it immediately. So glad i did. It is insanely good, and I shan't spoiler, but the end had me in a tizzy for a few days at least. Read on, I can't wait to hear what you think.