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Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis

Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis
4.5
Book Name: Bitter Seeds
Author: Ian Tregillis
Publisher(s): Orbit (UK) Tor Books (USA)
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audio Book / eBook
Genre(s): Alternate History / Science Fiction / Fantasy
Release Date: July 12, 2012 (UK) April 13, 2010 (USA)

What is the greatest evil in modern history? Because it might not be the Nazis…

We all know that the Nazis were monsters (and I did a history degree so I know what I’m on about) but there is a saying that goes something like, those who win the wars, write the history books and Tregillis’s job seems to be to remind us of this. Yeah the Nazis were twisted and evil but to what lengths may the British have gone to hold back the tide of war? Is it possible that the British sold their souls to the devil to fight the demons of hell?

Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis is the first in the Milkweed Triptych of novels. It tells an alternate history of World War II where all hell is breaking loose (in more ways than one).This is a world of arcane sciences and superpowers, mysterious other-dimensional beings and a permeating backbone of questions regarding humanity. When both sides are desperate to win, what will they sacrifice to ensure victory?

“It lulled the boy into an uneasy stupor, like a fever dream. The fire’s warmth dried the tears on his face. A shadow fell across the glade; the world tipped sideways. And then the fire spoke.”

Bitter Seeds is a book of questions and is far deeper than you might expect. It delves in to the dark heart of humanity and squeezes it until it oozes tar all over the notions of morality and conscience.
In a book with the Allies versus the Axis, you’re supposed to support the Allies, the good guys, the bastions of freedom, right? Well, to a point that is true with Bitter Seeds. You can’t help but love the British stiff upper lip and their apparently good intentions but their inevitable slide in to depravity feels wrong, yet right, and beautiful in a twisted way. Where the history books call us Brits the good guys, there sure are an awful lot of ulterior motives flying round.

Which brings us to the Nazis. What about those evil bastards? Well, as a group they’re certainly evil but as individuals they are still human beings…
So, you can imagine my surprise when I realised that my favourite character in Bitter Seeds is Gretel – how can I root for a Nazi? She is one of the German supersoldiers who expertly toys with both sides and in many ways is as much a threat to the world as the omniscient Endolions. (Also, if this was a film, she would be played by Helena Bonham-Carter). While she may be the greatest enigma of the whole novel, she is also the emotional core, gluing the whole thing together and both directly and indirectly exposing strange aspects of human nature. There are some scenes involving her and her brother Klaus that Tregillis nails and manages to show that the Nazis, besides being evil were also relatable. Scary right?

But you know what’s scarier than that? I mean, what’s really really scary? By the end of this book I found myself rooting for those sad and corrupted souls on the Nazi supervillain side!

Overall, I really enjoyed the strength and consistency of the themes and their deeper reflection of the nations involved. Germans are known for their grit and engineering excellence and so their super soldier experiments were grounded in science rather than in the occult like so many Nazis in pop culture (Hellboy, Hellsing, COD Nazi zombies, etc). I thought Tregillis did a particularly good job of creating these powers in period technology, making them bulky and unrefined with wires sticking out of heads and huge batteries hanging from waists.
Tregillis has done the same for the English side, taking common ideas surrounding us Brits and opting to run with a Glastonbury festival feel. Great stuff.

“We are pollution, a stain within the cosmos, Marsh realised. And we are not welcome here.”

Aside from the depth of characters and meanings, this book is filled with the kinds of exciting, intelligent and intense scenes that you’ll find in only the best page turners. I won’t give too much away but even from the opening scene with Marsh (a British spy) you know you’re on to a winner. Think 007 meets Firestarter and you’ve got an idea. Later, the scene where contact is first made with the Endolions (extra-dimensional entities) which quickly gets out of hand, is written incredibly well, bringing a new sense of fear to an already fearsome novel. And then there’s the scene that totally captured me, the scene where the super-powered Nazi soldiers are demonstrated to an elated Himmler. It is ghastly and excellent. It’s wrong on every level but it is oh-so compelling, fascinating and frighteningly convincing. The pace, emotion and dynamic of this entire book is just brilliant. It barely lets up and I love it all the more for this.

Which brings to me to another huge point regarding Bitter Seeds and that is that it is just written so damned beautifully. The prose really is some of the most accessible yet academic that I have read in a while. Tregillis writes with authority while displaying a firm understanding of the subtler things that make us human.
Also, if the acknowledgements are read correctly then Tregillis is part of G.R.R.M’s writing group which suggests that whatever that group’s doing, they have the recipe to create gold.

“I’m telling you, sir, he’s not himself. And if you let him, he’s going to take us so far off the fucking map that ‘Here Be Dragons’ will be a quaint memory.”

I don’t actually have many problems at all with Bitter Seeds. As a story it is compelling and intriguing and as a piece of literature it’s one of those books that flies the banner of fantasy in the face of anyone who dismisses this genre as unintelligent crud. There’s one thing that has niggled me though, which for some people will be a non-issue.
Here I am, reading this amazingly well written book which discusses in detail, places and English attitudes that I know well. The English people in this novel are captured with a meticulous attention to values and voice. I find myself being sucked in to something that is so English you could shake a scone at it, and then, out of nowhere, BAM! You get hit with an Americanism, which for me, really broke the spell. I have no problem at all with the difference between English and American spellings and am by no means one of those ‘English’ purists, but the problem is that it looks wrong in the context of a very English novel. Words like sidewalk, diapers and elevator all unfortunately served to suck me out of my trance and remind me that I’m reading a book. It would be like me writing a story about a New Yorker and detailing them smearing jam on their bagel or tripping over their trainers. The reader would know what I meant but it just looks wrong. As I said, to some this will be a non-issue but it really annoyed me.

The Bottom Line

Whether you are looking for a cool alternate history that questions the core of humanity or just a damned brilliant story with twisted powers and great action, you should check this out and be wowed. It’s one hell of a ride.

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Rating: 10.0/10 (11 votes cast)
Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis, 10.0 out of 10 based on 11 ratings
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One Comment

  1. Dimitris Tzanerakis says:

    You know, I wholeheartedly agree with your review of Bitter Seeds. I am enjoying it now and have already ordered the other two in the series. Being a non-english speaker the difference of english and american terms went over my head, but what really annoyed me was the way Tregillis had Marsh travel from Mezieres to London, via boat at that, within one day… Nitpicking, I know, but I have an eye for detail and it annoys me when I spot sloppiness such as this…

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