Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis

The year is 1939. Raybould Marsh and other members of British Intelligence have gathered to watch a damaged reel of film in a darkened room. It appears to show German troops walking through walls, bursting into flames and hurling tanks into the air from afar.

If the British are to believe their eyes, a twisted Nazi scientist has been endowing German troops with unnatural, unstoppable powers. And Raybould will be forced to resort to dark methods to hold the impending invasion at bay.

But dealing with the occult exacts a price. And that price must be paid in blood.

Bitter Seeds is the debut book of Ian Tregillis and the first in the Milkweed Triptych, a to be written trilogy with “The Coldest War” and “Necessary Evil” to be released in the UK soon. Bitter Seeds was first published in 2010, and sadly missed my attention, but looking for interesting titles I came across Bitter Seeds and as soon I finished the synopsis I knew this was a book for me. The English warlocks and German psychics, and the super human element has always appealed to me and Ian Tregillis has woven it into a plot involving the Second World War. Only a few pages in I knew I was in for gold…

Bitter Seeds plays out mainly between 1939 and 1941. The prologue begins in 1920, where you first see the German’s side and the scientist Von Westarp and his “orphanage”. It was by his introduction and the way he went around with some of the children that there was a certain dark and grim setting introduced to the side of the Germans and their super soldiers. But also in the prologue you see the English warlock side with Will, casting the spells as a warlock requires certain sacrifices, paid in blood, finishing the book has left me with some thoughts that though you see the Germans as the bad guys, the English warlocks are not altogether without blame themselves, some will go through lengths to achieve their goal... After the prologue the story centers around three different storyline: Raybould Marsh an English spy, the English Warlocks and the German Psychics. In only this short 400 pages book there happens a lot, both in terms of storyline coalescing as you see the battle being fought out and cantering around each storyline the depth and complexity of the characters.

Take Raybould Marsh: first a street boy and now in service of The Crown. After getting in touch with a contact for the English in Spain, where everything goes - unexplainably - sour, Raybould now finds himself in a plot that cannot be explained having recovered some picture only. The English are in for a mystery about what the Germans are doing. Besides the focus on the goal of Raybould, figuring out what the Germans are plotting to win the war, there is a nice broadening of the world where the story takes place. Ian Tregillis shows a compelling human side next to the war business between the English and the Germans. Raybould gets a wife and a family and this secondary aspect plays very nicely into the storyline and after some devastating events Raybould is fuelled with revenge on the Germans and particularly one of the psychics. Overall you see Raybould grow from a somewhat fresh officer to a more embittered officer determined to get to the bottom of the German research, but added to this in between the visits in England you see him show a compassionate side towards his wife. His struggle between doing the right thing is show perfectly.

Next are the English warlocks, where you see Will, a friend of Raybould. Will has been trained by his grandfather to be a warlock. When I first read about this I hoped it would not be burning candles and drawing circles, and this was not the case. Ian Tregillis added a - upon reflection - dark, gritty and grim side to being a warlock and what is required for the spell. On top of this he added a great set of rules of what is possible and what is required. The warlock spells are cast with blood sacrifices that can range from a single drop of blood to a person’s soul. This help is not without its costs... Next to the element of the warlocks there is a further build-up of the history of the warlock society and how they converse with the Eidolons, the warlocks negotiate with the Eidolons to set a price for a task. Now do not think of this as they can easily point and say “kill that person”, the Eidolons cannot harm people directly, the reason for this is explained in detail. As for the character of Will, he had a character that via certain events was very relatable too. He warned the English of the dangers and costs of calling the Eidolons for help, but the Admiralty will do anything to reach their goals… And this places quite the heaven burden on the shoulders of Will, where I felt that he was under quite the pressure to help. Will can see the Eidolons and he also see what is going wrong. In order to continue to pay the high blood prices, he and his fellow warlocks have to resort to some desperate and dark acts... I really liked the depth given to the warlock aspect in Bitter Seeds showing a careful and well thought out planning.

This leaves me with the German side, who, next to Raybould and Will, you get to visit frequently. As I said in the beginning Dr. Von Westarp is the founder of the German psychics. Too start it is not like the X-Men but the children were forced in boxes to master their willpower. Using a nifty gadget inserted into their brains and powered by a battery, that is accessible with using their willpower, these children can do amazing stuff. Think of: flying, starting fire, becoming invisible, becoming insubstantial, telekinesis and probably the power that really fuels the storyline: precognition, seeing the future. But there is one downside to these powers and that is emphasized in the story and in some cases proved fatal, batteries can lose their power... it was good to see that just as with the English warlocks the power was not always present but that there were rules. The German children that you see in the storyline are Klaus, Gretel, Reinhardt and Kammler, there were others but they were more secondary. From the beginning you see a certain division in the German psychics, especially Reinhardt, having first mastered his powers he is quite in for himself in thinking he is definitely the best super soldier. His personality clashes often with Klaus. In Klaus you see a lot of determination trying to get accepted. He is not the true Aryan in having a olive coloured skin. But in the heat of battle both Klaus and Reinhardt fight with full vigour for the Reich. I was really impressed with the character of Gretel, the precog, she is complex, having been subjected to a more rigorous regime to get to her powers that the others, she is now a bit disturbed in her doings. She knows what will happen in the future and is thereby a very important asset to win the war. As you see her visions helping the Germans in the war effort, I could also glimpse that she was somehow sabotaging them in a small way. It really felt in the end that the story is unfolding underneath the web that she is spinning. And if she is for the better of the Germans of English or none of the above is to be found out. This introduction of Gretel’s precog ability really gave another dimension to the story.

Bitter Seeds shows a great feat of combing a very strong narration, complex characters and several cool elements like the warlocks and psychics. Everything in the storyline from Raybould and Will daily doings to the concepts of the German psychics and English warlocks was worked out in detail. See the British Intelligence reverse engineering the mysterious batteries and creating the pixies to try to get the better hand over the Germans for example. These small additions really made me feel the story as a whole. On top of this some of the character left an impact on me in particular Will, Klaus and Gretel. The ending might have felt a bit abrupt for me, showing more or less the English side with their new found allies. It did leave a great introduction for the second book. I have high expectations of the sequel because with what happened in the end and overall in the storyline, I think that the sequels will have a more darker and sinister aim to them, what is really happening in the basement of the Admiralty and why is it needed now that the war is over?? This book really takes you to the edge of the seat!

10/10 A very strong narration, complex characters and several cool elements.

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