For those of you who haven't been keeping track, Ian Tregillis' Bitter Seeds is the last book I was assigned to read by George R. R. Martin for losing our second NFL wager. GRRM has done pretty good by me since I lost that first bet, so I was actually looking forward to reading this book.
Here's the blurb:
It’s 1939. The Nazis have supermen, the British have demons, and one perfectly normal man gets caught in between.
Raybould Marsh is a British secret agent in the early days of the Second World War, haunted by something strange he saw on a mission during the Spanish Civil War: a German woman with wires going into her head who looked at him as if she knew him.
When the Nazis start running missions with people who have unnatural abilities—a woman who can turn invisible, a man who can walk through walls, and the woman Marsh saw in Spain who can use her knowledge of the future to twist the present—Marsh is the man who has to face them. He rallies the secret warlocks of Britain to hold the impending invasion at bay. But magic always exacts a price. Eventually, the sacrifice necessary to defeat the enemy will be as terrible as outright loss would be.
Alan Furst meets Alan Moore in the opening of an epic of supernatural alternate history, the tale of a twentieth century like ours and also profoundly different.
As a paranormal alternate history yarn, Ian Tregillis tinkers with the history of WWII and its genesis. The author takes us back to Spain during the Civil War, while the bulk of the action takes place in Great Britain and Germany. Tregillis has an eye for historical details, and his narrative truly makes the reader feel as if they're right there. His style is evocative without being too dense, and he managed to capture the essence of Spain, France, England, and Germany in a beautiful manner.
The only aspect of this novel which sort of kept nagging at me was the total absence of the pogroms and the entire Jewish angle of WWII. Considering just how important what came to be known as the Holocaust was and still echoes down the decades since the end of the war, it felt odd -- to say the least -- not to see a single mention of this atrocious genocide.
Other than that, however, Bitter Seeds makes for compulsive reading! The pace flows extremely well, and there is not a dull moment throughout. Following Marsh and the rest of those working on Operation Milkweed trying to puzzle out how to face and defeat the German superhuman soldiers was quite a treat. Another facet which I found appealing is that the author attempts to imbue the story with as much realism as possible, be it with the warlocks' magic (which takes a heavy toll and requires a blood price for every spell) or the supernatural abilities of von Westarp's children.
The narrative is broken down into a number of POVs, with the principals being that of Raybould Marsh, Klaus, and William Beauclerk. This allows readers to see events unfold through the eyes of both the Allies and the Nazi war efforts, as well as the warlocks' involvement. Still, as interesting as these points of view ultimately are, it's the enigmatic gypsy-born German seer Gretel who takes the cake as the most fascinating character of this book. I found myself looking forward to any scene featuring her and was seldom disappointed. Though Tregillis only offers us a glimpse of her psyche and her powers, the ending really makes me want to know what will occur next.
The blurb can be a little underwhelming, I know. But do give Ian Tregillis' Bitter Seeds a chance and you won't regret it. As things stand, in this house at least, it's the speculative fiction debut of the year.