Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis rewrites the supernatural history of Europe in the years between the Spanish Civil War and the outbreak of World War II . Its trajectory follows the early years of the real war, but then as you read on, things start going a bit pear shaped, history is not moving in the line you’d expect. It’s because magic and the scientific occult are colliding.
And while this may be a continent spanning occult canvas, Bitter Seeds is a surprisingly intimate and human story, resulting in one of the best fantasy books of the year.
We spend vast amounts of time with our loathsome villains, the pyrokinetic-ESP-dematerializing soldiers of the Gotterelektrongruppe, Germany’s occult super weapons. Created in an occult incubator by a mad scientist truly worthy of the title. It is unusual to inhabit the world of the enemy as much as Tregillis does in Seeds, but we will address that later.
Giving the story a heart, in the midst of supernatural chaos and bloodletting, is Raybould Marsh: Royal Navy spy, one part Cdr. Bond and another part overnight Carnaki. He is action man. His life rises, falls and falls some more. You think you know what’s going to happen with the character, expecting some supernatural or Faustian bargain to give him his dream back. And yet it doesn’t materialize. Tregillis skips the obvious to go right for the gut. To dip the pen in bile and scribble down words that are dark and evil.
As we noted above, Bitter Seeds does spend a lot of time with Nazis and it might make some uncomfortable. While the Reich has replaced Romans as the perpetual bad-guys, we do think it worth noting how careful writers need to be when approaching cookie cutter villains like the Nazis. Tregillis does not diminish them, conjuring the optimistically ubiquitous ‘Good Nazi’ or write them off as caricatures. In fact the Nazis in Bitter Seeds seethe with evil, their utter inhumanity in the real world is doubled in the fantasy of Bitter Seeds.
Interestingly, in the name of King and Country, the British eventually unravel their own righteous moral blanket in order to save their nation, their supernatural realm. And as we rush to climax we understand how grotesque even our heroes have become to win at all costs. To win by staking the future of Albion’s sons and daughters.
Tregillis conjures strange phantasms, the Eidolons, beings whose intellectual curiosity for mankind is only aroused by a drop of human blood. These creatures are spoken to, or more like seek audience from, British warlocks that clandestinely serve the Crown. The Eidolon feel like classic fantasy constructs because they apparently are rooted in the dark works of Edgard Allen Poe and his poem Dreamland.
Poe’s poem reads like a drum beat for Bitter Seeds, “By a route obscure and lonely, Haunted by ill angels only, Where an Eidolon, named NIGHT, On a black throne reigns upright, I have wandered home but newly From this ultimate dim Thule.”
And yes, Tregillis incorporates the ever popular Thule Society into his world as well.
The language of these inter-dimensional Eidolon is Enochian, a truly British supernatural language press ganged into service for Bitter Seeds. Enochian you see was used by physican-mystic Dr. John Dee in the late 16th century as essentially a language used to commute with heaven’s angels.
Also, what makes Bitter Seeds good alternate history is the hammering use of weather as the great determiner of war. Outside of the combatants and their tables of organization and equipment, weather is sometimes the single largest force on a battlefield. Why this worked well is because in a way Tregillis picked up the reverse of the real world weather watchers of World War II.
It’s often said the greatest unsung heroes of WWII were meteorologists, especially those forecasters who’s opinions moved or halted the D-Day invasion, like the real-life forecaster Group Capt. James Stagg. So instead of watching the weather Tregillis’ most important players made the weather and helped reshape the face of World War II.
This book pulls no punches and loves its action by the fistful. Unlike many books of late, where style and flash overwhelm substantive characterization, Bitter Seeds delves in solid back stories and heart wrenching plot devices to get you invested. You groan when appropriate, gasp at others and stare wide eyed at the conclusion.
Bitter Seeds as a first book is unusually solid, if at times overly eager in exposition. If you liked movies such as Raiders of the Lost Ark or the installments of the Mignolaverse and the work of Harry Turtledove, then Bitter Seeds will surely please.
Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis was purchased for review by the Boston Book Bums.