In an alternate history of Earth, in the years after the Great War, deep in the heart of Germany, a mysterious doctor takes two orphans into his home with nefarious purposes. In England, one young boy is brought into a dark family secret, and another is found and raised by a spymaster who sees great promise in him.
Years pass and the clouds of war come again. The Spanish Civil War is a petri dish for the Nazis where they are testing a new secret weapon – super powered humans. The British catch wind and they begin their own counter initiative. Their weapon against the “Jerries?” Warlocks, and the powers of the otherworldly beings they call upon.
World War II has begun.
The Short of It:
This is a great book, but I think the way it plays out won’t match the expectations of someone reading the basic description. In many ways, the strategy and progress of the war effort are just flavoring or a background to what is ultimately the focus of the book, which is the personal lives and conflicts of certain members of each side’s secret organization. Those who enjoy the setting and flavoring of WWII, but are mostly interested in sharp characters, intrigue, action, and a blend of nerdy genres will enjoy the book.
The Long of It:
The premise of the book really drew me in – mostly because I’m a sucker for all three genres this book contains, fantasy, sci-fi, and alternative history. I was slightly wary because it had every possibility to come across as cheesy and silly, when I wanted something more serious than that. Thankfully it wasn’t all capes and wands. Instead, it takes a grim and dark approach. The science of the Nazis is rough, imperfect and violent. These superpowered beings live with wires protruding from their skulls attached to batteries around their waists. They bear both mental and physical scars from the experiments that made them. The warlocks of England also bear scars for the blood prices they must pay to the beings they beseech. Tregillis definitely doesn’t pull punches.
The plot is a bit weird, and as I said in “The Short of It,” the focus of the plot will turn some people off. On the one hand there are a great many things happening in the book to a great many people, it covers the years of World War II, after all, but this is all peripheral to the personal experiences of the main characters. In some ways, it could have been the same story but told in any other war (though I suppose the technology limitations of the time pretty much guarantee it being set it a modern war). That minimal integration of the events of WWII into the narrative will turn off those looking for a real retelling of the war.
Instead, the book focuses primarily on four characters, two on each side, who are at or near the core of their secret groups. The book follows them, their actions and their character arcs. They are involved in their respective war efforts, certainly, but you only get a few glimpses of them participating in the actual events of the war. A few times I would recognize references. Dunkirk is a particularly important one, for instance, as is the Ardennes forest. But though these events provide context to the characters and their actions, they are rarely directly involved.
One thing I felt the novel did well regarding the larger war was paint both sides as willing to do terrible things for their cause. War is not a pretty thing, and it brings out the worst in people and governments. In the book, both the Nazis and the British were monsters of a sort.
Most of the plot is based around intrigue. Both secret groups make plans and act on them to discover, find, and thwart the other group. In some ways, the events of the book are a war that happens off to the side of the real war we all know happened. In this, the book does a good job, though the resolution to the various storylines isn’t very compact or direct. In fact, things learned at the end of the book make the events of the war feel very much like a warm up act, and indeed this is the first book in a trilogy. Still, for whatever flaws the plot has, I was never bored.
Because of the book’s plot and focus, the quality of the characters is very important for the success of the book. The four main characters are interesting, even if they aren’t all particularly deep. In England, William Beauclerk has the most tumultuous time of the four, with a real crisis of conscience over what he is doing. Raybould Marsh comes across as a bit of a mix between your average soldier and James Bond without the womanizing. I liked him, and he does have a bit of an emotional arc, but there is something a little plain about him.
The siblings on the German side are less well drawn, but still interesting. Klaus has mixed undercurrents of emotions beneath his typical Nazi soldier outer layer, and in the end he cares more about survival and his sister than any sort of typical Nazi cause. He does show humanity on multiple occasions, though this is usually in the form of disgust for the things people worse than him do. His sister Gretel, meanwhile, is the most enigmatic figure in the whole story, and you feel like you still haven’t scratched the surface of her by the very end of the book. She is fascinating to watch, but if she has character growth it is imperceptible. In the end I found it hard not to like them, for all that they do some pretty cruel things at times. They are victims of Nazi science, after all.
The side characters are a bit underwhelming. They all serve their purposes, but they are almost one and all archetypes. They fill the roles they are dealt, but you never see complexity from any of them. The Nazi’s are all cold, calculating, and cruel. The British are all serious and solid, if a bit cold and willing to do what they must to win. The complexity comes entirely through the main characters.
In addition to his good characters, Tregillis also knows how to write interesting action and intrigue. He describes battle scenes effectively, and I always felt like I knew what was happening and could easily picture it in my mind. There are several infiltration scenes in the novel that are particularly memorable, and are made all the more so by the use of the characters’ powers and the smarts of other characters in discerning what to do to counter them.
Conclusion and Star Rating:
“Bitter Seeds” is, for all its grim tone, a fun read. The powers on both sides are interesting, as is the intrigue. Tregillis’ main characters are interesting, likable, and have some emotional depth, even if they aren’t as complexly drawn as they could be. It won’t set the world aflame for its ideas, but for a solid and entertaining time, it’s a very good book.
I give this book three and one-half out of five stars, or “Very Good.”