Sunday, July 13, 2014

Necessary Evil - Ian Tregillis

Necessary Evil is the concluding volume in Ian Tregillis' Milkweed trilogy. The series seems to have lost some momentum with readers after Tor failed to get the second book, The Coldest War, out in a reasonable amount of time. Now that all three volumes are available however, it would be a shame to not dive back into this series. In the first two volumes, the author laid out a substantially different history of the second world war. In this third, he intends to take events full circle. I'm usually a bit skeptical when it comes to time travel stories but this one is very convincing in a way.

Gretel's manipulations of the timeline has sent a fifty-something year old Raybould Marsh back into the early stages of the second world war. He has seen his world end but in this one, he can still save his daughter, his marriage and possibly his son's soul. A prize for which he can put up with Gretel for a little bit longer. He does have a condition for saving the world however. He would rather see it destroyed than suffer a Nazi victory in the war. Thus, a new round in the struggle between Raybould and Gretel starts, and the stakes have never been higher.

Tregillis takes us back to the early days of Milkweed, at a point in time already visited a bit into the first novel Bitter Seeds. The outcome of the war still hangs in the balance and Dr. von Westarp's creations are still a huge threat to the security of the United Kingdom. Raybould knows the price of defending themselves with magic but convincing his past self and the other people involved in Milkweed is not going to be easy. His claims to have been transported from another timeline will sound ludicrous even to people used to dealing with magic. Raybould will have to take a more roundabout approach. One that involves a great many despicable acts. Necessary evil, as he thinks of it.

The second volume was not kind on Raybould. He sees his life pretty much turn into a nightmare after the war ends. His marriage is a farce, his daughter has been killed and his son needs round-the-clock care. To be transported back to the time that could be considered his finest hour, is possibly even more of a torment. He comes into contact with his younger, stronger and more healthy self, sees his wife as a young woman who still loved him, gets to travel around London before it was transformed into a city he despises, and meets with his friend Will who has not yet turned into an addict and a traitor. And all of it is out of reach for him. It all belongs to the younger version of himself. Tregillis once again manages to create a thoroughly miserable character. The loneliness and jealousy drip from the pages.

The other main character doesn't fare much better. Her ability to see the future has always put her in control. Her manipulations have guided her through time, always certain of the outcome of her actions. She has had only one fear, the threat posed by the Eidolons, and she seems to have outsmarted even them. Slowly, doubt is starting to enter her mind however. A fog descends on the future and Marsh, whom she desires, keeps vexing her. Gretel  has always been a scary character, the way Tregillis makes her crack only reinforces that feeling. In a way it makes her more human. Raybould can't feel sorry for her, but the reader might come away with a different impression.

Historically, Tregillis stays a lot closer to the timeline in our history books. There is no easy victory for either side and the conflict quickly envelopes the entire world. The cold war doesn't start early in this timeline and the United Kingdom has to defend itself with more conventional means. The events in the war are much more background to the story than in the previous novels. The reader doesn't have to pay attention to the difference from history as we know it in this book. The actions of the characters more or less ensure that the outcome will be what we know it to be. In effect, Gretel  and Raybould wrench history back on its tracks. Tregillis is much more interested in his characters in this novel than what effect they have on history.

It's probably the focus on the characters that makes this book work for me. Time travel stories tend to tie themselves in knots, always running into paradoxes that makes my suspension of disbelief come crashing down. Let's face it, having two versions of the same character in one story is usually trouble. It turns the whole Star Trek reboot into something slightly absurd for instance. Tregillis uses it to great effect in this novel though. Marsh is constantly tempted to take the place of his younger self. It takes a supreme effort for him not to do so. Tregillis takes a plot element that usually ruins a story and turns it into something very engaging.

If I had to name something I didn't like about the book it's the way Tregillis switches between past and present tense. It's a break with the style of the previous two volumes, and the parts written in the present tense breaks the flow of the story. I understand why Tregillis reached for this technique, in a way it helps the reader to keep the two versions of Raybould apart, but I felt it didn't quite work as intended.

Necessary Evil is a very satisfying conclusion to the trilogy. The way the story unfolded in the previous two volumes, it can't help but deliver a bitter-sweet ending. It's a book that almost forces you to keep reading. Tregillis managed to pretty much constantly make me wonder how he would twist events from the frist novel to fit this new timeline. When you look at the entire trilogy, it is a remarkable bit of plotting. In hindsight, I may have underappreciated the quality of Bitter Seeds a bit. The trilogy as a whole, is one I would recommend to people who enjoy a good alternative history.

Book Details
Title: Necessary Evil
Author: Ian Tregillis
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 384
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-2152-7
First published: 2013

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