The Coldest War by Ian Tregillis

Tor, July 2012
ISBN 978-0-76531-251-0       
Hardcover, 352 Pages 
Book Two of The Milkweed Tryptich 
Author Web site: 
Review copy courtesy of the publisher 


World War II was won by the United Kingdom, but twenty years later the USSR is becoming a global threat. Sounds a little familiar, doesn’t it? Well, the forces who helped the United Kingdom were Warlocks while the Nazis employed genetic engineering to create Super Soldiers.  Furthermore, the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor never occurred and thus the United States was never part of the war. This is the geopolitical environment of The Coldest War, the second installment of Ian Tregillis’s Milkweed Tryptich.

In The Coldest War, Ian Tregillis picks up the story threads from his debut novel Bitter Seeds to bring readers back into the lives of Raybould Marsh and Will, the former British spies who worked for the Milkweed group.  In the twenty years since, Marsh married Liz and had a son, John, while Will married Gwendolyn and is a prominent member of society.  All is not rosy; however.  Will has been working for the Soviets providing information on the warlocks whose contact with the eldritch Eidolons allowed for the British victory.  With the help of Gretel and Klaus, two of the super soldiers created by Nazi mad scientist von Westarp Marsh attempts to halt the growing power and influence of the Soviets.

If one were to apply a Criminal Minds/psychological profile to the brother and sister super-soldiers, Klaus is clearly the submissive and Gretel is the dominant of the two.  Considering her precognitive powers, this shouldn’t be a surprise for anything that Klaus may plan or consider on his own is something his sister has seen or knows. In a sense, as I mentioned in my review of Bitter Seeds, there’s a resonance with these characters to comic book superheroes; or more specifically comic book super-villains.  Precognitive powers are common in comics, but in my years of reading tales of people with powers in capes and tights, no writer, save perhaps Alan Moore, has managed to capture the sheer power and terror inherit in an individual who can see the future.  Sure the DC superhero Martian Manhunter can read minds and Superman has commented that the Martian Manhunter might be the most powerful individual on Earth in the DC Universe, but that was just a hint.  Here in The Coldest War, Tregillis fantastically relays the fear the other characters have of Gretel and in her actions, we see the cold, calculating efficiency of one who knows how events will play out.

While I enjoyed The Coldest War a great deal, the overall tone of darkness, anger, and bitterness was inescapable. As a result of the efforts of Marsh and Will during the war, their lives have changed irrevocably.  Tregillis does an amazing job of conveying the stress of post-war trauma on both of these men, especially with Marsh and his wife Liz.  The two were very happy and hopeful at the conclusion of Bitter Seeds, but here in The Coldest War there is nothing but blame and hatred in their marriage and the primary symbol of this is their despondent, (seemingly) mentally handicapped son John.

Tregillis cleverly titled his novels, for in the first book, even though a victory is achieved, the seeds of that victory provide bitterness for the lives of those who helped to bring the conflict to a conclusion.  Of course The Coldest War can be applied to the rising tensions between UK and the USSR or the war of cold feelings and angry words between Marsh and his wife Liz. Again, Tregillis masterfully conveys emotion, especially negative emotions. This dark tone gives the novel a strong edge of Horror that while present in the first novel, is more pronounced throughout the novel.

The Coldest War draws to a close with an element that can be controversial and divisive amongst readers, but the panache with which Tregillis employs the element is smart and very effective.  The dangling threads to be picked up in the concluding volume are quite tantalizing and leave a great deal of open road with which the author can drive the story.

One thing about the book itself – while I think Chris McGrath’s cover is striking and captures the essence of Klaus (I assume) quite well, I can’t understand why Tor decided to switch from John Jude Palencar’s equally striking cover art which stood out just a bit more. 

All told, The Coldest War is a very strong novel, both as the second book in a trilogy and as the author’s second published novel.  The Milkweed Tryptich has a lot to offer readers and is recommended quite strongly.

© 2012 Rob H. Bedford

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