Ian Tregillis, Bitter Seeds: The Milkweed Triptych, Book One (London: Orbit, 2012), 398pp
The concept of Bitter Seeds - an alternate history of World War Two in which the British employ warlocks and blood magic to fight the Nazis, who have engineered scientifically-enhanced supermen - is one of such promise that you desire earnestly for it to succeed, and not to be a convoluted mess. Thankfully, Ian Tregillis executes it well. The quality of storytelling is exceptional right from the off; on page one, Tregillis introduces the ravens, before linking this deftly to poison gas to illustrate that his story begins in the aftermath of World War One. The ravens are also used on page six to link the previous introduction to a second one taking place in England, linking the separate character arcs and creating a moody, foreboding atmosphere that the novel retains throughout. The ravens, along with later references to the wind and, more importantly, the surf and the rising tide, are used expertly as thematic anchors for the story.
Yet whilst the quality of writing is superb, the main appeal of Bitter Seeds is its alternate history. Particularly in the first part of the novel, this is fascinating to read. The Germans use their super-soldiers on the battlefield in a way that would seem logical; they undergo field testing in the Spanish Civil War (much as the real-life German military tested out its new technologies and tactics in that war), and Tregillis' examples of their employment in 1940 in the Ardennes (clearing vast swathes of impassable forest for the panzers and bypassing the Maginot Line), the early stages of the Battle of Britain (using precognitive abilities to identify key locations in Britain's air defence network) and in the Battle of the Atlantic (using mind powers to rip apart the hulls of British merchant ships) are interesting riffs on real history. The British use of magic is less exciting, though its employment (manipulating the weather to foil Operation Sealion, Hitler's proposed invasion of England) convinces.
However, as the story develops and the plot (inevitably) deviates from real-life events, the alternate history seems harder for Tregillis to control. I don't want to go into too much detail in case they are considered spoilers, but Tregillis' World War Two ends much sooner than the real one did. It makes sense that the British would use blood magic to stem the tide of the German advances until they could regroup after Dunkirk, but its use after this seems strange. I find it highly unlikely that British strategists would green-light the course that Milkweed (the government section in charge of the British warlocks) takes, considering how intolerable it would be to the balance of power calculations that Britain historically applied to continental Europe, not to mention how many in the British government saw the main beneficiary of Milkweed's actions as their real enemy.
That said, the story as a whole does paint a plausible picture of a world at war, albeit one in which blood magic warlocks face off against German occultist supermen. The 'pixies' employed in Chapter 11 echo the real-life ingenuity of British boffins; the contraptions seem almost like a lost relation of one of Hobart's Funnies. Neither side holds all the cards - the German supermen rely on imperfect batteries to power their abilities, whilst the British warlocks must negotiate with the supernatural Eidolons (of whom more below) - and so the more fantastical elements of Bitter Seeds do not overwhelm its more grounded history. (Though if I could make one nitpicking criticism, Tregillis has far too much confidence in the accuracy and comprehensiveness of World War Two bombing raids, particularly the ones of 1940-41. The total destruction of two locations by aerial bombing are carried out in the novel, and their complete eradication from the face of the earth is important to the plot. However, in real-life, World War Two bomber planes were notoriously inaccurate, often inflicting negligible damage, and sometimes even failing to bomb the right city. This is why they turned to morale bombing; total destruction being something unfeasible until the atomic bombs of 1945, or at least the area bombing of 1944-5).
Bitter Seeds also appeals as it approaches events with a distinctly gray morality: by the end, you are not quite sure whether the British, with their 'blood prices', are all that much better than the defeated (and cold, and starving) Germans. The British warlocks are not magic-users as such: they commune with powerful otherworldly bodies known as the Eidolons to perform the acts for them. The Eidolons are an interesting and enigmatic element of the novel. Upon encountering an Eidolon, Marsh (the main British character) detects "a simmering undercurrent of malevolence" (pg. 131) - the Eidolons hate humankind but, for reasons explained adequately in the text, cannot destroy it. These omnipotent, godlike beings of 'pure volition' are "offended by the notion that anything as profoundly limited as we are could also express volition." (pg. 240). The fury of the Eidolons when humans exercise their volition is shown most strongly on page 334. They exact blood prices as payment for their services to the warlocks, as blood allows them to gain understanding of humankind in preparation for its destruction. This increasing knowledge, as well as the rising body count needed to appease the Eidolons' blood prices - "Blades are outmoded, worthless; the ha'pennies of negotiation. Dynamite and priming cord, that's where the purchase power is." (pg. 264) - adds an element of menace whilst also compelling the British to surrender the moral high ground. One gets the feeling that, by the end of the novel, the British have defeated one evil enemy - the Nazis - but empowered a much more dangerous one (perhaps two if you count the Soviets). In Tregillis' world, Churchill might well have revised his statement that if Hitler invaded Hell, he would make a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.