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Bitter Seeds (Milkweed) Mass Market Paperback – April 24, 2012
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From Publishers Weekly
Debut novelist Tregillis breathes new life into alternate military history with this fun take on WWII. In this version of 1939 Germany, the insane Dr. von Westarp has given WWI orphans superpowers, such as fire-starting, intangibility, and invisibility. As they use their abilities to aid German expansion, young mutant Klaus starts to suspect that he and the other soldiers are being manipulated by his precognitive sister, Gretel. Meanwhile, British secret agent Raybould Marsh recruits his old college buddy, magic-wielding aristocrat Will Beauclerk, to the British cause. Tregillis has trouble fleshing out characters and is overly fond of worn-out plot devices—a disastrous raid survived only by the protagonists, an urchin destined for greatness—but the action sequences are exciting and intense, and the clash of magic and (mad) science meshes perfectly with the tumultuous setting. (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
In the Spanish Civil War, British secret agent Raybould Marsh thinks he saw a German woman with wires growing out of her head. Once WWII erupts, he learns that his eyes weren’t fooling him. The Germans have developed various kinds of real live supermen, such as the wired-up lady, with the ability to foretell and influence the future. The British have their own, equally secret occult arsenal, including warlocks to conjure “friendly” demons and fight the other kind. A member of the Wild Cards group, Tregillis begins a saga in his first novel, one that may rival Naomi Novik’s Tales of Temeraire as a sustained historical fantasy. --Roland Green --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
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Top customer reviews
I would argue that the scenario is the star of the first book. This is a WWII alternate history book, but the line is blurred. There is also magic and there is a science fiction element. So it's a whole lot of speculative fiction rolled into one package, with the line being kind of hard to draw. I am mostly a fantasy reader who occasionally delves into science fiction and I thought it was well done, anyway. (I will admit my knowledge of WWII-era history is spotty. Because I grew up in Independence, MO, we spent an inordinate amount of time on Harry Truman, specifically, in school, sometimes to the exclusion of other things that were going on in the world at the same time. So I know more about the atomic bomb than about the European theater, bombing of London, etc. I bring this up to point out that I might not spot potential inconsistencies that the true military history enthusiast would notice.)
I don't want to give too much away but the book synopsis does mention this so I don't really count it as a spoiler: the protagonists are British warlocks and the antagonists are German supermen upon whom vaguely explained medical experiments and surgeries have been done, conferring them with abilities like passing through matter, long-distance communication, becoming invisible, and the like. At least, that is how it feels after reading book one. Both sides do some pretty awful things but of course history is written by the victors. (I also think we sympathize with the British because we are *supposed* to, based on our understanding of history in our own real timeline. There is something being set up at the end of the book that is revealed in book two as well as expanded upon there -- I'm close to being done with that one as well -- that makes you wonder how different the Germans and British really are, especially in this book that doesn't touch much on the horrors of the Holocaust. It's not ignored, it's just not the focus of the story.)
For what it's worth, both British and German abilities have appropriate limits and these are explored in a great amount of detail as well as being cleverly pitted against one another. This part was nicely done.
This is sort of a common theme in Tregillis's work; you really get involved with both sides of the story, and there's nothing that's 100% right or wrong, and sometimes good people on the *right* side are forced to do things, or choose to do things, that are pretty awful. (For the record, the Germans here are soldiers, basically, not leadership, although a few historical figures do make brief appearances. They are not really in charge of anything and they are victims of medical experimentation that doesn't leave a lot of survivors and this makes them more sympathetic than anyone who could order something like concentration camps to exist or send people to them.)
The pace is wonderful. There's a little personal reflection and such, but mostly there is a lot of suspense and action and I did find myself reading long past when I should several times, just to find out what happened next. Whenever that happens, I am inclined to give a pretty good rating to a book.
I enjoyed the writing style. I thought it was unobtrusive but I took some German in high school and while it has been a long time, I could piece together enough of the German officers' titles and such to make sense of them, so it didn't break immersion for me.
If I had to name a weak point it would be the characters. I don't feel there is a ton of character development in this book. One character, Will, a warlock who is also the younger brother of a Duke, has misgivings about his work (not necessarily feeling that the ends justify the means, and feeling guilty about his part in everything) that begin to manifest in self-destructive behavior towards the end of the book. Another character, Marsh, starts from a low beginning and has a brief rise working for British intelligence. But there is a great cost in his personal life. I don't really feel like he changes a lot, though. He lets entirely natural feelings get the better of him. On the German side, our main POV character is Klaus, one of the individuals on whom experiments have been performed. He strikes me as an immature adolescent trying to please a father figure (the doctor who did the experiments) and vying for attention versus a rival. I think he is a bit older than adolescent, but I would attribute my picture of him to the fact that he had an unnatural childhood without love or affection from a parent. He doesn't change in this book but I think if you stick with the series, you will be more pleased with Klaus in book two. (To be fair, you can't focus on too many characters in one book without diluting things.) I kind of find the characters to be stereotypes in this book, not having quite as much depth as I would like, but more being carried along by external events.
And then there is Gretel. She is Klaus's sister and her ability is precognition. She is always a step ahead of everyone and the full implications of some of her actions don't make sense until later on. She is captured by the British at one point and you just wonder why all of this is happening and don't worry, you get an explanation in book two. I still have no idea what her overall motivation is. I hope it is something more than mental illness (that was a problem I had with the antagonist Queen Mab in the Alchemy Wars series). She is not the only antagonist, and there are plenty of other conflicts going on, from a personal level for the characters to the level of international diplomacy. I am reserving judgment on her until the end of the series, when/if we find out her motivation.
In short, overall I felt this was a strong book, I just wish there had been a little more character development. (Future volumes do start to remedy this.)
It has a great start: a mysterious and macabre orphanage in the Weimar Republic; a man on fire in the Spanish War; a woman with wires in her head at a dock. The author also does a great job of really diving into the alt-history: this isn't "just like the historical WW2 but with a few wizards next to the tanks" that a lot of alt-history seems to cleave to. This takes much more of a "butterfly effect" approach such that by the end of the book, the world looks very, very different. I like that.
There are a few missteps along the way, though, that kept me from totally loving this book. Some of them are small quibbles that are easier to overlook. (As others have mentioned: really, England is the only place on Earth with these warlocks? The rest of the British Empire seems curiously absent? Etc.) Those didn't affect my suspension of disbelief too much. I could come up with reasons (even if the author didn't) for why things worked out this way.
The characters aren't drawn as well as they might have been. They start out pretty well: Marsh and Will have a lot of potential. But they end up stagnating for most of the book. Liv and Marsh's relationship with her feels rote. The bad guys in Germany, especially Klaus, end up having a much more interesting and developed interior life.
The author doesn't do a great job delineating the boundaries of magic. What is allowed and what isn't? The result is that the ending big magic thing leaves you feeling....Well, dang...if warlocks can do THAT...why didn't they do it 300 pages ago?! A bit more rigor or pre-explanation would help avoid this feeling like quite so much of a deus ex machina. But that's something that can be improved in the next installment.
The biggest weakness of the book is that the author sets up a villain who is, literally, omniscient. That makes it hard to have much dramatic tension. She sees and knows everything. Every single event in the book unfolds exactly the way she wants it to. She manipulates events on a large, strategic scale (invasions) and on a small scale (a single person being shot). Every other character in the book simply has things happen to them and no ability to deviate from the course she has set.
The only sense of "drama" comes from not knowing what her goals are. That ultimately ends up being pretty unsatisfying as a reader.
Looking back on it, this feels a lot like a comic book in novel form. The relatively shallowness of the characters. The way powers are ill-defined and seem to allow exactly whatever the plot requires. The mandatory but weak love story/relationship. That's not a bad thing, since I like comic books, but just gives you an idea of what you're getting into.
Overall, I still ordered the second book and will continue the series. It provided enough fun to keep me wanting to see how it goes. And if the author fixes some of the weaknesses in the second or third book, it'll be even better.
Most recent customer reviews
The quickest review I can give is this: If the original cover art by John Jude Palencar appeals to you, you will probably be underwhelmed by the book.Read more