Having thoroughly enjoyed Bitter Seeds, I was shocked when I learned of Tor Books' major screw-up which prevented this second volume from being published in 2011, as it was originally scheduled. The author has expressed some concern on the matter, fearing that readers might not think The Coldest War was worth the long wait.
Well, let me set everyone's mind at ease. Ian Tregillis wrote an awesome sequel to a great debut. Indeed, this one was a doozy! And as things stand, in this house at least, The Coldest War is the very best speculative fiction title of the year!
Here's the blurb:
In Ian Tregillis' The Coldest War, a precarious balance of power maintains the peace between Britain and the USSR. For decades, Britain's warlocks have been all that stands between the British Empire and the Soviet Union—a vast domain stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the shores of the English Channel. Now each wizard's death is another blow to Britain's national security.
Meanwhile, a brother and sister escape from a top-secret facility deep behind the Iron Curtain. Once subjects of a twisted Nazi experiment to imbue ordinary people with superhuman abilities, then prisoners of war in the immense Soviet research effort to reverse-engineer the Nazi technology, they head for England.
Because that's where former spy Raybould Marsh lives. And Gretel, the mad seer, has plans for him.
As Marsh is once again drawn into the world of Milkweed, he discovers that Britain's darkest acts didn't end with the war. And while he strives to protect queen and country, he is forced to confront his own willingness to accept victory at any cost.
The action occurs in the spring of 1963, in the middle of the Cold War. The USSR now controls the entirety of Europe and most of the Asian continent all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The only thing that prevents Great Britain from falling under the Soviet yoke is the generation of warlocks that saved the British Empire during WWII, and they are slowly and inexorably getting mysteriously murdered. Trouble is, the Soviets have spent the last two decades researching and reverse-engineering von Westarp's technology to create their own breed of superhumans. Once they put these super soldiers on the field, everyone knows that nothing will stand against them and the entire world might be conquered by the USSR.
Bitter Seeds was a paranormal alternate history yarn in which Tregillis tinkered with the history of WWII and its genesis. With The Coldest War, he does the same with the Cold War that followed the second World War. The author has an eye for historical details, and once again his prose his evocative. I also enjoyed the political and social ramifications of a Soviet-dominated Europe.
Although there are a few minor POV characters, once more we witness events unfolding through the eyes of the same three principal protagonists: Raybould Marsh, Klaus, and William Beauclerk. As was the case in Bitter Seeds, there is a nice balance between the three POVs. The last two decades have not been kind to Marsh, who has become a shell of a man and whose marriage is falling apart. He gave everything he had to Operation Milkweed, yet the end of WWII did not bring the happiness he so longed for. Klaus, who has spend over twenty years in top secret Soviet research and military facilities with his sister, is no longer the weapon he used to be. Only William, who got kicked out of the operation before the end of the war, enjoys a better life and has finally found love. But this happiness also comes at a price, one that may well break him. Seeing how these characters have changed and evolved over the years demonstrated that Ian Tregillis has a knack for good characterization.
And yet, it doesn't matter just how much character growth there is or how well-defined the protagonists turned out to be. For as was the case with its predecessor, it's Gretel who steals the show every time she appears in The Coldest War. This gypsy-born German seer is one of the most fascinating characters I have ever come across. In Bitter Seeds, we were offered a few glimpses of a master plan only Gretel seemed to be aware of. Well, in retrospect, by reading this second volume you realize just how much ground work she was laying down for what would follow. Simply put, it's at times incredible. I found myself shaking my head in wonder on several occasions.
In terms of time frame, The Coldest War is not as sprawling a novel as Tregillis' debut was. The events chronicled within its pages cover only a period of about six weeks, with the bulk of the action taking place in London. Which means that the pace is fluid throughout, with never a dull moment bogging down the narrative.
Intelligent, thought-provoking, inventive, and engrossing, The Coldest War is the kind of work that totally satisfies you and makes you beg for more. I will certainly be lining up to read the final volume, Necessary Evil.
Ian Tregillis did not only write a worthy sequel to Bitter Seeds, he also raised the bar higher and came up with an awesome ending that set the stage for what should be a memorable finale.
The Coldest War is definitely one of the speculative fiction novels to read this year, and as such it deserves the highest possible recommendation.