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Bitter Seeds: Some Bitter Facts About Alternative History

August 19, 2010

I live a 10 minute walk away from Elliot Bay Books, the biggest independent bookstore in Seattle. I’ve gone several times, and I’ve perused their recommendation section, writing down what appeals to me. My last list looks something like this:

Roberto Bolaño? Raymond Carver? Henry Miller. Infinite Jest. David Mitchell? Thomas…remembrance? M? See The Millions (I was thinking of Rosencrans Baldwin’s mention of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder in his pre-novel diary).  Last Man Standing. Other books by China Miéville? Zift? –> Communist horror/detective novel? Graphic novels!

The above list looks all well and cultured, but past recommendations thus far have been spotty at best. Elliot Bay Books turned me on to The Muse Asylum by David Czuchlewski, which I did not finish, but the 50 pages I read were rather pretentious. I had heard else where that the work of Jonathan Barnes was worth reading, but I was disappointed by the frankly bizarre conspiracy theory driving the plot in The Somnambulist. At least the novel had interesting characters to keep you involved. It was in offensive that I figured his next book might better. The Domino Men is a loose sequel to The Somnambulist set almost 100 years in the future. Unfortunately, this novel was worse. The plot was disorganized, filled with flat characters, and played out like a very bad joke.  They were maybe 1 for 3. But, lured by a fancy cover and an interesting concept, I picked up Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis.

Sure, the premise sounds awesome: Nazi science experiments result in supermen. Klaus can become insubstantial (but can’t breathe when he does so). His sister, Gretel, can see the future. Reinhardt encompasses himself with a blue fire (but still gets the cold shoulder from women). Kammler is telekinetic: throwing up invisible walls,  crushing trees, moving trucks (but the experiments left him profoundly retarded). There’s some interesting commentary in using these freaks of nature when Nazi’s are the poster children for eugenics. Reinhardt is the only Aryan superman, everyone else is deficient in some way (Klaus and Gretel are part gypsy) but the Nazi’s come to rely on Doctor Karl von Westarp’s children for their success. The Nazi’s use the Spanish Civil War as a training ground for these still developing men and women, but a spooked defector threatens to talk to the British, specifically special agent Raybould Marsh. Marsh’s contact gets burned to a crisp courtesy of Reinhardt, but Marsh gets some clues as to what’s a foot — some film strips depicting a disappearing/reappearing woman, a floating tank, and an insubstantial man.

Marsh, trying to learn more, turns to his friend Will Beauclerk, who has a particular hobby. Exposed during a drunk evening in the university library, Marsh knows Will’s grandfather initiated him as a warlock when he was 8. But magic doesn’t truly exist, instead the warlocks negotiate with the Eidolons, omniscient beings capable of seeing all of time and space. They loathe humans, want them extinguished off the face of the earth, but when you can see everything that ever will be, and ever was, it’s hard to to find exactly you’re looking for. Eidolons will do you a favor — change the weather, make waves in the channel, for a blood price.  In dire times, Will rounds up all the warlocks in Britain and pits them against the German war machine.

So it comes down to this: German mutants vs British warlocks, but when you’re dealing with such commonly known history like WWII, the great debate for Alternative History is: Do you change the outcome of an event (the Nazi’s win!) or stick to history, but change the facts slightly (The British survived the blitz because they had warlocks!). Tregillis goes for changing the outcome, and the reason. Dunkirk gets stopped on day 3, the English having only managed to evacuate some 28,000 men, instead of over 300,000. Things like this happen when you have a seer guiding German planes.

But the problem is that I’ve read better examples of this kind of work. Susanna Clark’s wonderful Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell masterfully combines magic and military during the Napoleon era, but the nature of the English magic in that novel was a way to battle the natural military genius of Napoleon. The outcome was the same, the magic supplemented the English activities. Tregillis seems to have read Clark’s novel as well, because there is a lot of similar raven imagery interspersed through out the novel. I’ve also read (and re-read, and re-read) Neal Stephenson’s most excellent Cryptonomicon, which focuses on the technological aspects of WWII. Also, my friends are huge WWII nerds, so I’ve picked up a fair amount of details and minutiae about WWII planning.

The problem with Tregillis’ novel is that he has yet to hone his craft and his ideas. There is some interesting material here, but not enough consideration goes into the war effort. Tregillis drops the names of organizations, and has Marsh and Will go through some of the military bureaucracy, but the reader never gets a sense of the war’s scope. Admittedly, with a seer some of those details are a moot point — she’ll know which messages gets cracked, she’ll know when and where things are going happen (unless she intervenes of course), but Gretel as a character is mishandled. Tregillis never gives a sense that she’s pointing out what missteps not to make, how to play defensively as well as offensively. She’s a problematic character, and Tregillis never seems quite sure what to do with her. She is playing her own long game and as readers we’re never let in on what’s happening. I’m fine with that but setting the whole book in WWII, and making her the heart of the German war effort is vastly underplayed. There’s a lot of lip service to this idea, but Gretel stuck in meetings is never real because we never see it. Our narrator for the German side is Klaus, and he is relegated to the sidelines compared to some of his comrades (but then again, what else can the immaterial man do but see?). The war seems like a perfunctory excuse to get the characters up and running, then once that’s in place, he abandons the war altogether.

As for his craft, some of the writing and back story is clumsy — Marsh gets adopted by a WWI hero, and we never hear mention of his mother ever again (who was alive in the first 20 pages) . The big battle is written quite well, but the scene where Marsh meets his future wife comes off like a scene in a bad romantic comedy. When things start getting bad on the English side, the writing gets fractured, and the reader is left scrambling to puzzle together what’s happened in the interim. It shouldn’t have to be spelled out for us, but some dramatic development has happened that only gets addressed as sorrow, loss, and hopelessness are resolved. Not only that, but the story never gets wrapped up. Characters pop up, are never explained and disappear again, never explained

Now this I don’t blame on Tregillis, I blame on the publishers. After some research, I discovered that Bitter Seeds is the first of three novels in “The Milkweed Universe.” Couldn’t we have had a blurb on the last page, something on the cover, anything at all? Had I known this was part of a series, I would have been more accepting of the things Tregillis leaves hanging, instead of growing more incredulous with every page turn.

The question then, is will I read the next novel? Maybe, maybe not. The writing isn’t interesting, many of the characters struggle to develop, and I’m not confident that Tregillis won’t have Gretel lead everyone else around by their nose. I think I’ll have to pass.


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