Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis
Orbit UK, July 2012
ISBN: 978 0 356 50169 7
398 pages plus extras
Review by Mark Yon
The back of this one has a lurid quote from Cory Doctorow, which may attract or deter you from reading this one: ‘Mad English warlocks battling twisted Nazi psychics?’ Whilst it is said with a knowing wink and a nod to pulp SF’s heritage, it’s actually not a bad summary of the novel.
Two narrative threads run here. For the German point of view we are mainly told of events from the perspective of Klaus, who with his twin sister Gretel and a number of other children are being trained by the ‘mad doctor’ Doktor von Westarp. Westarp has been experimenting on the ‘bitter seeds’, in order to enhance select abilities. These include the skill to walk through solid objects, teleport, see the future, levitate, spontaneously combust and so on.
For the viewpoint of the Allies we have Commander Raybould ‘Pip’ Marsh and the British intelligence network, the SIS. Marsh’s boss is Stephenson, a gruff ‘M’-type character and Lord William ‘Will’ Beauclerk, an expert in the occult who Marsh quickly enrols.
The novel alternates between the two perspectives. In terms of time, the story begins in the 1920’s, before the Second World War, but is mainly based in 1939-41, during what appears to be the first months of Britain’s conflict against the Germans.
Marsh and the British Intelligence obtain information, admittedly in a damaged form, which purports to show unusual, if not unnatural, occurrences in Germany and in Spain where the Germans are fighting a civil war. Marsh and his colleagues have to determine whether the intelligence is real and what degree of hazard such information presents to the Allied war effort.
At the same time, Westarp’s children are kept in an isolated prison under extreme conditions as part of their training. Whilst their training develops their powers, Gretel escapes from Westarp and surrenders to the Allies. Though she is later recaptured by Klaus, her arrival causes consternation amongst the British.
The Allied solution is to use a group of British warlocks known as Eidolans, organised by Beauclerk, who by tapping into their source of power can combat the newly-created threat. This effort is not without cost, however, for the Eidolans demand a blood sacrifice for their services. As the German war effort gains momentum before invading England, Will and the Eidolans are kept very busy.
In brief, the novel can sound, like the quote I gave at the start, rather sensational. However, after reading, I found it to be surprisingly well researched, and knowledgeable enough so to create a realistic world that enhances that often-desired suspension of disbelief when reading. Though the initial thoughts of the reader might suggest something superficial, it wasn’t long before I was thinking, ‘You know, it might just….’
Furthermore, although the plot outline might suggest characters that are rather flimsy, the characters are never as simple nor as clearly defined as you might think. Marsh, who initially comes across as what would typically be our clean-cut, lantern jawed hero, by the end is deeply scarred by what happens here, and does things that many a ‘hero’ would blanche at. Similarly, Klaus, who as one of the ‘monstrous’ children, seems to be a thoughtful and even rather considerate child who cares about the people around him, including his almost-psychotic twin sister. This ambiguity gives depth to what otherwise could be a Golden Age style pulp plot.
The great evil entity as presented here is quite Lovecraftian in its sense of malevolence, as well as highlighting the insignificance, on the cosmic scale, of all humans. Though never mentioned in detail, it is clear that both by the strange Enochian language possessed people speak and the glimpses beyond the veil of normalcy we see, there is something quite unearthly about the Eidolan higher power that the English warlocks negotiate with. Paid in blood, it is an alliance that clearly at some point is not going to end well.
There are minor quibbles: the use of the word ‘pasteboard’ rather than ‘cardboard’ in an English setting is a little jarring, some of the dialogue seems a little out-of-time, but overall the sense of momentous events in a WW2 environment is secure.
Most interestingly, as events change from what we consider to be ‘the normal facts’ towards a different timeline at the novel’s conclusion, the book leaves the reader with a feeling of ‘Where do we go now?’ that can only be assuaged by reading the next book in the series.
In summary, a great read, that is intelligently engaging enough to hold the reader’s attention throughout. Think of it as a mutant version of an experiment whereby John Wyndham’s Midwich Cuckoos meets Hellboy through Dennis Wheatley and HP Lovecraft.
Those who enjoy Charles Stross’s Laundry novels will love this one. Recommended.
Mark Yon, July 2012