In 2010, Ian Tregillis took the SF/F world by storm with his stunning alternative World War II debut, Bitter Seeds. Tregillis received a large amount of attention because he was groomed under the tutelage of some of fantasy’s greats, such as George R.R. Martin and Daniel Abraham. If his teachers were not enough to lure you in, its arresting hardcover of a woman holding a novel and trampling over a pile of skulls just might be. Given these pieces of information, you probably concluded that Bitter Seeds is a dark romp through the corridors of war and how it changes us, for better or for worse.
World War II rages on, and neither the United States nor Germany is willing to give up any ground. That is, until a brilliant German scientist cracks the genetic code and creates machines that allow humans to gain superpowers, to become the Übermenschen of Nietzsche-an fame. To combat this escalation of German power, Britain enlists the help of warlocks. In between these two powerhouses is a normal British operative who must figure out how to stop the magical Reich. The war is at its boiling point, and sacrifices will be necessary. Neither side will come out unscathed.
An old dog still has some new tricks
One of the interesting things Tregillis does is take fairly old powers and make them interesting again. For example, one character can turn invisible, which is a concept that has beaten readers across the head for ages, but Tregillis uses it in a novel way. In addition, Tregillis’s no-holds-barred approach to combat allows these powers to have new life. In war, there are no moral limits and thus, the characters beautifully exploit their powers to the fullest extent. This does not mean the characters can wantonly fling their powers about, however. They are intimately aware of the limits of their power and the fact that they are still mortal.
Now that is a character arc
Where the magic and technology is really intriguing, the characters are even more interesting. The British side is housed by a cadre of good-willed individuals who are trying to end the war to protect their country and loved ones. In their attempt to stop the war, the British have to make many sacrifices, drink in the proverbial abyss that war inevitably brings. The Germans do not fare much better since they are held back by the Reich’s bureaucracies and the taxing mental toll their superman status brings. All of these character changes come together to make quite an exciting read because it shows just how far a person is willing to go to win.
The authorial hand
As previously mentioned, this was Tregillis’s first novel, and it shows in a number of places. On the surface level, there are pacing issues and some seemingly silly tactics employed by the main characters. The grossest grievance I can level at Bitter Seeds is that, at times, Tregillis does not let the despair of war grow naturally. I completely understand that war is gritty, but Tregrillis seems to place the characters at just the right time to have the worst possible thing to occur to them. This really stretched my suspension of disbelief. Of course, these are just small grievances that I am sure will be buffed out in the next two novels.
Why should you read this book?
George R.R. Martin liked it—isn’t that enough for you? Well, of course not. You should read Bitter Seeds because of the brutal effect of this concocted mix of science, magic and grey characters. If you are looking for a new and exciting voice in fantasy and science-fiction or a voice that rings true on the tolls of war, then look no further than Ian Tregillis.