Bitter Seeds ever since Cory Doctorow mentioned it earlier this year. It explores an alternate Earth that is largely the same until 1920, when a Nazi scientist called Von Westarp takes a number of war-orphaned children and turns them into super-men—super-monstrosities in some cases. By the time they reach adulthood, Germany has a secret weapon to use against the British. They are out-gunned as World War II begins, until a Scottish warlock shows up who can help turn the tide.
Any work of fiction that involves super-beings has my interest piqued, but this book delivers a whopping good story because the setting is rooted in a historical event that we are familiar with, and Tregillis did a fair bit of research in that time period. The super abilities and magical powers are also believable, because they have defined limitations. The Nazis have only a handful of supers, and they require a battery power pack, connected by wires going into their brains (that Von Westarp was a twisted genius), to fuel them. The warlocks work their magic through extra-dimensional beings who require blood and sacrifice. The greater the magic they want performed, the greater the sacrifice must cost.
I had fun trying to match some of these characters against comic book counterparts. Klaus can turn intangible like the Vision, able to reach into someone’s chest and squeeze their heart. Kammler is probably the most powerful, a stammering telekinetic who needs to be controlled like a dog on the leash—his personality reminded me of the Hulk. Klaus’ sister Gretel is probably the most frightening character in the book, with her ability to see into the future, and shape it according to her will. There are many such characters, but Destiny from the X-Men came to my mind first.
The other thing that adds realism to Bitter Seeds is the fact that both sides do things that are great and terrible in service to their country. Marsh and Stephenson, on the British side, will pay just about any price to keep the Nazis from invading. Klaus is shown to be merciless on the battlefield, but has streaks of kindness regarding his sister and Kammler.
I couldn’t get enough of this book and didn’t want it to end. When I read the last word on the last page, I thought my e-book edition had somehow been truncated. Like the last episode of the Sopranos, the ending was intentional and appropriate. Fortunately, Tregillis wrote this as a trilogy (the Milkweed Triptych), and the second volume Coldest War will come out early 2011. Nuff Said!
Link: Ian Tregillis web site.
Link: Ian Tregillis Inteview on Sword and Laser podcast.