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Bitter Seeds (Milkweed) Mass Market Paperback – April 24, 2012
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“A major talent.” ―George R. R. Martin
“Exciting and intense… The clash of magic and (mad) science meshes perfectly with the tumultuous setting.” ―Publishers Weekly
“A white-knuckle plot, beautiful descriptions, and complex characters--an unstoppable Vickers of a novel.” ―Cory Doctorow
“Bitter Seeds may rival Naomi Novik's Tales of Temeraire as a sustained historical fantasy.” ―Booklist
About the Author
IAN TREGILLIS lives near Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he works as a physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory. He is a member of the Wild Cards writing collective, directed by George R. R. Martin. Bitter Seeds is his first novel.
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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.)
The secondary characters are all one-note cardboard cutouts, especially the Nazis. But even the main characters lack the depth and development I expect of a novel (rather than a novella or short story). Despite being used to the idea that wartime makes monsters of us all, there is still an unsatisfying lack of any likeable or relatable characters. Characters who has so much promise early on, such as Nazi-science-experiment-turned-superhuman-precognative Gretel and the supposed British spy and 'hero' Marsh, fail to develop that promise and are actually turned into much flatter, horrible people. Gretel initially appears to be a science experiment slash soldier-slave desperately seeking a way out, but by the end of the novel she is revealed, as Marsh discovers, to simply be a sociopathic bitch who wants everyone except herself (and possibly her brother) dead. Marsh starts out as our hero, the underdog who shined up good and wants to protect his country and the innocent from the Nazis. By the end, he is an unhinged monster willing to sacrifice anything and anyone, unwilling to listen to reason and uncaring of anything besides his badly-written love for his wife (which only exists when convenient for the author/plot).
March and Liv's "romance" happens off-screen for the most part, which might be a good thing because what is shown (rarely) on-screen is just bad and lacking any emotion or believability. Liv and the other incredibly rare female characters are just plain badly written -- pop up cliches to provide something soft and smelling of flowers, or a convenient naked body, to male characters who need a distraction from the war. Gretel only escapes being someone's sex toy by virtue of her status as 'scary witch / psychotic bitch'.
I really wish the characters had been better because both the superhuman experiments and the Eidolon entities/system were both interesting and worthy of further novels to explore them. Unfortunately, I don't trust the author to give me decent (either interesting OR moral) characters to explore those things further. I can't see myself picking up the next book.
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