Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Coldest War - Ian Tregillis

In 2010 I read Ian Tregillis' début novel Bitter Seeds. It's an alternative history of the second world war and pits a British secret intelligence organization called Milkweed against a group of human super weapons created by a Nazi scientist. The novel was one of the more noteworthy débuts of the year. Tregillis had a deal with Tor for a trilogy and after the success of the first novel, readers were eagerly awaiting the second. Unfortunately it took Tor more than two years to get the sequel on the shelf, despite Tregillis having delivered the manuscript as early as 2009. Tregillis went into quite a bit of detail on his blog about the history and delays in the publication process. I suspect he lost more than a few readers because of the delay. I must admit I lost track of him myself until I ran into a copy of The Coldest War in a bookshop in Amsterdam in September 2013. I should have paid more attention though. The Coldest War is one of those books that makes me wonder why I left it on the to read pile this long.

Twenty-two years have passed since the end of the second world war. Russia's influence now stretches from the Bering Strait to the North Sea and the British Empire is locked in a cold war with the communist states. Raybould Marsh is no longer involved in this struggle however. He has withdrawn from the nightmare that was Milkweed only to see his marriage descend into a bitter struggle with is wife Olivia. His personal cold was is put on hold when two figures from his pas in Milkweed reappear, Grettel and her brother Klaus have managed to escape their captivity. Their arrival in London sets into motion a series of events that will once again radically alter history.

Tregillis certainly isn't afraid to create great changes in the history of Europe as we know it. Although a cold war does develop after the defeat of Nazi Germany, the US apparently plays no significant part in it, not having been involved in this version of the second world war at all. The nation remains locked in economic stagnation and internal conflicts. The British Empire remains intact and thus remains a superpower in its own right, opposed to the Soviet Union with a sphere of influence much larger than the one in our time line. The entire continent is essentially red except for the British Isles. When you look at it on the map, it creates a bit of a David versus Goliath idea. The power of the British warlocks keeps things even however. It doesn't strike me as the most plausible alternate ending of the conflict, even taking the warlocks and Nazi experiments into account. It strikes me as unlikely that the British would have been able to hang on to their empire regardless of the outcome of the war.  It's not really what the book is about anyway. It deals with the consequences of actions in the previous book and ultimately those consequences are both largely unforeseen and catastrophic.

The past is bothering most of the characters in to the book. All of them are driven by their past mistakes or traumas to some degree. Marsh for instance, is wracked by guilt over what he did back then and how it impacted his personal life. His former colleague Will is consumed by a desire to see justice done on those who exposed the British population to horrible crimes perpetrated under the guise of serving King and Country. Klaus is trying to get away from the influence from his sister and break with his past as a superhuman soldier he wants a normal life. Grettel herself, the one character who can look into the future, is also trying to fix things.

In effect, Grettel is the evil genius behind the events in the novel but Tregillis is careful enough not to reveal her motivations to early. For most of the novel she remains something of an enigma, never allowing us a look inside her head,  keeping the tension in the novel until the very end. I'm having trouble making up my mind about how well Tregillis does with this character. On the one hand he uses her cleverly to keep the reader and the other characters on their toes, on the other hand, the lack of insight into her motivation means she remains a bit of a shallow character. She is disturbing but not nearly as much as she might have been if we had understood a little more of what makes her tick. Tregillis is clearly not done with her though. Maybe he'll give us a little more of that in Necessary Evil, the final book in the trilogy.

With characters so conflicted, it is not surprising The Coldest War is a very dark book. Both parties in this cold war go to great lengths to gain an advantage over the other and if that goes at the expense of the population that are supposed to protect, so be it. While it doesn't leave the main characters untouched, they are clearly not done making sacrifices for their nation. Tregellis is good at writing fucked up characters, that much is clear. If you can't stand characters that are miserable most of the time, this series is clearly not for you. Personally. I have no problems with a well executed tragedy. For the most part, this novel works very well for met. A bit better even than the first volume.

The Coldest War is a strong sequel to a very interesting début. I have a thing for alternative history, although not necessarily for the period Tegillis chooses to change, but even taking that into account, it is a strong book. Tregillis has written an action-packed novel, following a number of very human but twisted characters in a conflict that is much larger than they can handle. It's a shame the publication of this book was delayed, had it come a bit sooner, the series might have been able to keep the momentum gained from the fist book and attract a bit more attention. Do not let that lack hold you back from trying this series. Tregills is an author worth checking out. The final book in the Milkweed Triptych has moved up a few places on my to read list.

Book Details
Title: The Coldest War
Author: Ian Tregillis
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 351
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-2151-0
First published: 2012


  1. It is a shame that this was mired in publishing "issues." The trilogy is simply fantastic, and this was one of the best middle-books I've ever read. Enjoy the final volume, and don't wait too long or you'll definitely be kicking yourself.