I had been lead to an interview with Ian Tregillis done by Charles Stross a while back, where Tregillis was speaking about the development of his Milkweed series and the comparisons that had been made with Stross’s own work. Having appreciated Stross’s The Laundry Series and the writing therein, I was eager to find Tregillis’s work and have a look.
What was especially appealing and, I assume, was the basis of comparison between these two writers was that a parallel reality, or speculative fiction, was being played with. Where Stross was influenced by H.P. Lovecraft and created a governmental agency that deterred the entrance of the Elder Gods from entering and taking over the world, Tregillis is playing a bit more with the mad sciencey and that there is something bigger in the universe than us piddly humans that has more hands in how the show is run.
The premise is set in the Second World War, with the Nazi’s doing their abhorrent experimentation on humans gig, with one scientist taking in orphans and harnessing their potential in otherworldly forces, creating soldiers with superhuman abilities. To counter, the English find a group of sorcerers that speak to entities from beyond this world that aid them in protecting their island from German invasion.
I have to be honest here and fess up that I am finding the Second World War and Nazism has become rather cliche in explaining what lengths a group of people will go to for the sake of experimentation. Tregillis at least shows us the other side and complicates the issue by calling into question the ethos of the English and the lengths they are willing to go to keep themselves and their country safe. In a response to being outmatched and outgunned by the Nazi Blitzkrieg, the English go ahead and start mucking about with Eldritch powers that exist outside of our sphere of being and could threaten to come in a break the known world apart. To keep these horrors at bay, the cabal of English sorcerers must continually up the stakes of sacrifice which are taken out on an unwitting British population So, to keep up the strategically interfering fog to confuse the Luftwaffe, they must sacrifice dozens of their citizens.
Tregillis explores the implication of these decision through the character of the sorcerer, best friend to the English hero, who unravels while grasping the understanding and moral implication of these deeds. However this exploration of character and morality remains fairly shallow. The generals and decision makers continue requesting the sacrifices to provide themselves with the time necessary for Allied victory. I could easily see how one could begin to argue, with this version of speculative historical fiction provided, that the Allies had no right to put themselves above the actions of the German doctor who experimented with invasive surgery to provide superhuman powers to orphans, but the author did not convince me that this was a discussion he was interested in having.
I would give this up as the point of this commentary; Bitter Seeds is an interesting set of ideas that never feels like it is fully fleshed out. I enjoyed the concepts of the sorcery and its explanation; the concept that there are entities out there that cannot quite see us or our dimension, but can manipulate broad forces while demanding sacrificial payment. I also like the idea of then German super-soldiers being created from the ability of harnessing their willpower or innate abilities with electricity carefully run through surgical implanted nodes.
Like the moral quandary I mentioned above, there are implications that are very underdeveloped in all of the situations and all of the characters. I would have enjoyed the novel much more had it investigated these situations more, but the novel seemed in a hurry to move to the next plot development and, at places, missed connections and seemed willing to jump points or meaningful explanations at times to get there. I understand that it is part of a series and there are more novels coming, but so much seemed rushed, pushed, in a hurry to get to the end so that the readers could move onto the next one.
Furthering the above criticism, there is a death that comes with a degree of foreshadowing and is close enough to the main characters that when it happens it is still a surprise. However, I remained unconnected as I felt that it does not capture the pain that should be felt or produce the affects on the characters, influence their actions, or the depth of emotions that such a death would be expected to bring. By the twist at the end, I had no emotional investment to be shocked or bother trying to anticipate what would happen next.
I don’t think that I would have had such a problem with Bitter Seeds if I skim read, reading just to get to the end and pick up another book, but I have to admit that I am a slow reader. I need the extra time to savour, slaver over and enjoy the nuances found in the author’s craft. Tregillis put forward the degree of innovation that was needed to keep me motivated throughout the novel and to continue reading, battling through a lot of the assumptions he was asking me to make regarding setting and theme.
Admittedly, I would read the sequel to Bitter Seeds, but more for the completist element in me and to practice to speeding up my reading as I do not think that the reader will miss any gems of quality linguistic crafting by skimming. I do believe that there are ideas worth pursuing here, as well as hope that, now that the stage has been set, Tregillis could slow down and truly explore his craft.