One thing I sincerely disliked about the classes in Dutch literature I had to take in school was the fact that half the books that were eligible to be read for those classes appeared to be about the second world war. I do realize that for the people who lived through it probably was the single most important historical event in their lifetime but once you know the general shape of history these books do get repetitive in a way. No matter how the author chooses to approach the subject. And yet Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis is the second book this year dealing with this subject, after Blackout by Connie Willis. Surprisingly, I liked both of them although I think Willis wrote a better book. Perhaps I should revise this policy somewhat and have another look at my own cultural heritage.
Bitter Seeds is an alternative history set in the years 1939 to 1941. Intelligence officer Raybould March is sent to Spain to witness the last phase of the Spanish civil war. It has been known for a while that the Germans have received permission from Franco test new weapons on the Republican faction. Now, a German defector is ready to turn some of those secrets over to the British. Before he can reveal much more than his terrible fear of the German experiments the informant is killed however. March is forced to flee with a half burned suitcase containing what remains of the documents the informant meant to turn over to the British.
What little remains is pieced together back in London. Together with Raybould's personal experiences it is enough to raise suspicions of the terrible nature of the German experiments. The creation of the Übermensch seems to be at hand. A task force is set up to counter the unnatural German experiments, headed by a man who will stop at nothing to defeat Germany. Under the name Milkweed a group of British warlocks is assembled to counter the German attempts to invade Britain. The influence these warlocks can exert are a valuable contribution to the war effort but there is a price to be paid in blood.
This novel is Tregillis' first but I am not entirely unfamiliar with his writing. The author has contributed to George R.R. Martin's Wild Card series of which I have recently read Inside Straight and Busted Flush. Tregillis contributed to both these volumes. I wonder if Tregillis has taken something of that comic heroes format with him to his solo work.
Tregillis changes the history of the second world war significantly in this book. With characters capable of seeing the future, walking through walls and making people and objects combustion spontaneously Germany has a powerful weapon to force the increasingly isolated British to their knees. It results in a very different outcome of the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk for instance. By the end of the book the shape of the war has changed almost beyond recognition. For readers interested in the history of the second world war Bitter Seeds may not be the best choice. There are two more books planned in this setting and the ending of Bitter Seeds seems to hint at books where history has diverged so far from our own world that very few parallels remain.
The Nazi experiments on people have been an inspiration for many writers, Tregillis is certainly not the first to write about what some of these experiments could have resulted in. The author takes these experiments way beyond what would be realistically possible, planting his tale firmly in the realm of speculative fiction. I always feel that this is quite a risk to take with a world war two story. The reason for this is twofold. First, as a reader, I don't want to end up in Castle Wolfenstein. It would be very easy for the scientist conducting the experiments in Bitter Seeds to turn into Joseph Mengele squared. The embodiment of all evil, completely insensitive to human suffering and perfectly capable of turning any human being into a lab rat. Unfortunately Tregillis' Doctor von Westarp doesn't entirely escape that cliché.
The second reason is that a lot of books on the second world war overdo the vilification of Nazis in general. I am well aware that they did a lot of terrible things but these atrocities were perpetrated by human beings, not anonymous devils in German uniform. Here Tregillis does a lot better. By creating a point of view character close to von Westarp he manages to inject a measure of humanity into Raybould's enemies that prevent to book from turning into a black and white caricature of history. In fact, unethical actions seem to be spread around equally with both British point of view characters committing some very distasteful acts of murder and sabotage over the course of the book.
And there we hit on something that will probably divide the readers of this book. Tregillis offers us three main characters and each is as unlikeable as the next. One lies to his wife, one flees in alcohol and drugs, a third is capable and quite willing to slay enemy soldiers in way that will make your blood run cold and all of them are willing to sacrifice the people they are supposed to protect in large numbers. It's a very dark tale the author is telling but I suppose that fits the period. Personally I don't mind flawed or downright evil main characters but if you are looking for a heroic victory over the evils of Nazism this is not your book.
So what does Tregillis offer us? Bitter Seeds is a dark tale set in one of the darkest periods in European history. Readers will find little comfort in the ending of the book, knowing the price that must be paid is almost as bad as defeat. The author leaves a number of broken characters behind to pick up the pieces in the second volume. I quite liked the way Tregillis turns history upside down and completely redraws the battlefield as the book progresses. He certainly sets up an interesting situation for the second book. In the early stages of the story I had my doubts as to whether Tregills would be able to make this a convincing story and maybe there is a touch of Wolfenstein in the book but not to the point were it is distracting. I'm on board for the second one.
Title: Bitter Seeds
Author: Ian Tregillis
First published: 2010