Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis
When I was no-but a lad, I used to spend some of my own pennies buying Dennis Wheatley. Perhaps in the 1980s, I might have felt some embarrassment about this but, with the benefit of hindsight, I can see it as being perfectly in tune with contemporary taste. Despite his often appalling prose style, he had a knack for being able to construct good adventure stories. If you combine this with the emerging interest in Satanism and the publication of crypto-history books like The Morning of the Magicians by Louis Pauwela and Jacques Bergier and The Spear of Destiny by Trevor Ravenscroft, you can see the world turning its gaze on the unthinkable. Even the cinema got in on the act with charismatic Christopher Lee as the Duc de Richeleau in The Devil Rides Out.
Since the 1950s and 60s, the trend has, if anything, accelerated. The running was taken up by a surprisingly large number of comics from Hellboy and the Justice Society of America battling Hitler as he wielded the Spear of Destiny, through to all the films and documentaries from Spielberg’s Indiana Jones to efforts by the History Channel — slightly ironic that a TV station claiming “history” as its fetish should give credence to allegedly true stories such as Hitler and the Occult. But, hey, a commercial station always gives people what they want to see. And all this before we start on the games like the Wolfenstein series.
So Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis, Volume One of the Milkweed Triptych, has us retreading well-trodden ground from the Duc de Richleau in They Used Dark Forces by Dennis Wheatley, John Graham in Lammas Night by Kathryn Kurtz and many others. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it raises the bar an author has to jump over if he wishes to say something new and interesting. As it starts, this is not promising. The choice of Eidolons is distinctly odd. For the most part, the genre tends to see these “beings” as phantasms or ghosts. In Ancient Greece, it meant a supernatural being who looked exactly like a real person — a different way of thinking about the soul or that part of a person surviving after death to enter Hades where consciousness would continue in a new environment. For Tregillis to be using this in a more diabolical form is going against history and expectation. Nevertheless, if we overlook the choice of word, the result is actually more interesting.
The book starts in a very naive way with both Germany and the British moving into a conflict, but the darker side soon emerges. The mechanisms for producing the German superbeings is pure steampunk cruelty, while the British are relying on these powerful supernatural beings as their defence and paying them off with local blood sacrifices. Everyone in positions of power is being totally rational in promoting their national interests. In war, morality bends to satisfy the needs of expediency.
Had this simply been British warlocks fighting German “supermen”, it would quickly have grown pedestrian. But it’s saved by one thread. The practical way in which our precog understands the forces of cause and effect is a delight. Throughout, she carefully walks the path that must happen for her own survival and the best outcome for. . . Well, that’s the hook. Since we have no idea what she thinks is the best outcome, watching her decision-making is fascinating. It’s also good we get off the broad structure of history as it is and into an alternate. Although there’s an alliance between the British, the Russians and, thus far, an isolationist US, we are left with Russia in control of continental Europe. The pragmatic British are following the German example and inducting their own children into a weapons program. While the Japanese are pushing on the Russian flank. It’s all nicely balanced as we wait to see exactly what the Russians have been working on other than copying the British EMP weapon.
As one who makes a lot of money writing in US English, I always look with interest when one of my trans-Atlantic cousins writes in British English. Except this is even more complex because, having decided to set the work in an essentially British or German locale, the publisher needs the resulting book to be comprehensible to US readers. We therefore have a most curious end-product which flirts with much of the vocabulary of English as she was spoke around the time WWII broke out, but has editors positively intervening when word choices were judged completely incomprehensible. So, for example, in the middle of sentences describing our younger heroes in a pub, drinking tea (remarkably) and eying the birds, one pays for the drinks out of his billfold. It’s not that I mind the odd lapse. Indeed, when I look at the extent of the Anglicization, I’m impressed by the bravery of the publishers in not having a glossary at the end explaining some of the more obscure words. For example, how many Americans know that the “blower” is the telephone and a “bob” was a shilling, i.e. a unit of currency? I suppose everything is reasonably guessable in context. But it’s a stretch. Overall, there’s a mannered clunkiness to the dialogue, somewhat matching the period. Not in the best way, it reminded me of Noel Coward.
Taking one step back from immediate impressions, I’m left with a good feeling about the result. Even though I suspect US readers may have problems with some of the vocabulary, there’s a very positive momentum to the writing. It pushes us along and keeps us interested. More importantly, there’s a postmodernist recognition that angels do not win wars. Leaders pay the prices they must to protect their countries. They cannot afford the luxury of scruples. More minor figures may end up shell-shocked, not only in the post-traumatic stress disorder sense, but also when they realise how immoral they must be to win. Such weaklings, for now, have left the kitchen.
I have ordered the second in the series to see how it works out.