Ian Tregillis: Bitter Seeds

Aug 11, 2015

There was a short story called What Doctor Gottlieb Saw by Ian Tregillis in 2/2015 issue of XB-1 magazine which I really enjoyed. Doctor Gottlieb, a psychiatrist, describes a secret project in Nazi Germany in which supernatural powers are being tinkered with by a combination of Willenskraft and technology resulting in a group of superheros on the wrong side of our history. Tregillis expanded his world into a trilogy called Milkweed Triptych; Bitter Seeds is the first novel.

Bitter Seeds is written from a perspective of characters on both sides of the conflict. The main hero is a British intelligence agent Raybould Marsh (I love that name) who encounters an apparent self ignition of his contact person in Spain; a new unit is formed in reaction to this event. An early addition to the team is Marsh’ friend Will Bueauclerk who turns out to be a magician, but not in Harry Potter way. The other side is represented mostly by Klaus who is being manipulated by his sister, a perfect precog, Gretel. Surprising is the time scale with huge gaps, totaling at years, which enables to play out interesting plots that might not be possible in a more action-oriented spy story.

Spoilers ahead

The novel doesn’t stand on its own. It’s intentionally written as the first act. The need for this comes from the presence of Gretel, a precog, who manipulates the world around her and plays many moves ahead of everyone else. Tregillis had to plot out the story and prepare it in advance for everything to make sense; it gives a nice structure to the book and there’s no fear of an infinite sprawl (I’m looking at you G. R. R. Martin). He tries to provide some sort of closure to the book but it’s not the final resolution by any means, a reprieve at best.

The core story is rather simple so far, but sprinkled with hints of what is to come, mostly by Gretel. A special group is formed and tries to gather intelligence about this strange Nazi project. The information is sparse and Marsh recruits his old friend, a magician’s apprentice, who negotiates with omnipotent Eidolons via blood magic, first to gather information, later to intervene in the war. Germans are working on improving their diesel punk technology and start deploying their superhumans. The mad scientist Von Westarp is becoming madder and madder each day, the superhumans aren’t without their flaws either and Gretel does who knows what.

Marsh’s gut impression was of a venerable lady, a grande dame, never beautiful but handsome in a stern way, now ruined by illness and racked with tumors. If a city could contract cancer, this place was terminal.

Ian Tregillis: Bitter Seeds

A twist comes, when the superhuman unit breaks through the Maginot Line and Gretel is captured / allows to be captured by Marsh on an intelligence mission in France. She’s later saved by Klaus in a solo mission which catalyzes the British effort. The Nazis start deploying the superhumans more often and start recruiting new candidates as well. The Brits in reaction develop technology to fight them, but more importantly set up a group of warlocks who negotiate with Eidolons to manipulate weather and later to teleport them to Germany; the price is blood of warlocks and blood of innocent people.

The theme of good people doing bad things is very strong and one of the most interesting aspects of the book. The Brits do worse and worse things to keep a magical blockade of the Channel and in the end start experimenting on children to breed more warlocks (I like the language aspect of the magic very much). Marsh is a patriot and a soldier but the death of his child breaks him and sends him on a dark path, which seems to come to an end in the last chapters. For a moment. Germans are depicted more like a caricatures, especially Von Westarp and some of the superhumans, who are not bothered by the evil they do; this is a common and valid criticism of the book. There’s no doubt about Reinhardt being a mad man and no one should like him. Klaus on the other hand seems to be a potentially decent percent who’s always had bad luck, has been forced to do evil things, but is still loyal to his sister even though her agenda is completely opaque. Gretel is the key to the story and the trilogy will ultimately succeed only if her machinations make sense in the end - how much did she form the story? how much is by chance? what is her goal? is she just playing with everyone?

Spoilers above

Admittedly, some of the tropes are bad. Most notably the mad scientist and a rather flat depiction of Nazis. However, it is compensated by rich characters on the other side, who are definitely not a straightforward heroes, they battle with their demons and sometimes they lose. I’m looking forward to the following books and hope that they work out and simplicity in some parts is compensated.