Ian Tregillis, The Coldest War: The Milkweed Triptych, Book Two (London: Orbit, 2013), 401pp
"Downstairs you have locked up a man who can walk through walls like a ghost. And his sister, who can read the future as easily as you and I read the god-damned newspaper. Now, you tell me something. Do you honestly believe it took them twenty-odd years to escape?" (pg. 114).
The Coldest War sees Ian Tregillis continuing the fine work he did with Bitter Seeds, the first book in this so-called 'Milkweed Triptych'. After the Eidolon-induced VE Day, this book sees a new status quo in Europe (hint: there's a 'Paris Wall'). Set roughly twenty years after the war of book one, Tregillis' alternative-history world convinces as it remains grounded in historical plausibility (you know, aside from the blood magic and supermen). At first, I was confused as to why the United States does not have a larger role in Tregillis' world, but realised that as the war ended early with British victory, the USA never usurped a war-weary British Empire as the dominant superpower, never pulled herself out of economic depression by becoming the 'arsenal of democracy'. Consequently, in Tregillis' Cold War, the American Depression has entered its fourth decade (pg. 252) and the two superpowers facing-off are the Soviet Union with its legion of supermen and the British Empire with its warlocks. As Tregillis suggests, time is a cruel alchemist (pg. 37), both for the world he has built and the characters he has created; the decision to mess with dark forces beyond the control of men has begun to reap terrible and ominous consequences. (But, on page 36, we discover that the Beatles still exist in this alternate history, so maybe Tregillis' crapsack world is not so bad after all!)
Into this chaos and strife steps Gretel, up to her old tricks, and this second instalment of the Milkweed trilogy revolves predominantly around the various interested parties trying to understand her, control her, and avoid her wake. This means it is less action-packed than Bitter Seeds - after all, this one is set in the Cold War rather than a 'hot' war - but the reader's interest is maintained by Gretel's constant scheming and manipulations, as gradually and tantalisingly her plans are revealed. And this is The Coldest War's main strength - Tregillis' mastery of plotting. It is a very clever book - I don't want to spoil what happens but even minor events from earlier in the book (as well as from Bitter Seeds) are shown to be of grand importance, from Heike's suicide in the first book (pg. 19) to the scenes recounted in this book's epilogue (it brilliantly tweaks part of Chapter 5 from Bitter Seeds). Gretel even has time to toy with Reinhardt (pg. 373) along the way. Gretel, this "remorseless... chess player sacrificing pieces according to her grand strategy" (pg. 148) is a truly fantastic character, and it says a lot for Tregillis' storytelling ability that even at the reveal-all ending she still remains somewhat of an enigma.
The Coldest War also builds on Bitter Seeds' great start by fleshing out the threat posed by the Eidolons. Frustratingly, I can't really say much on this without spoiling the plot for would-be readers, but suffice to say that the malice detected by Marsh and the others in the Bitter Seeds negotiations is bolder and more chilling than ever.
Ian Tregillis is proving himself an exceptional writer, adept at weaving the complex strands of the plot together across three books, switching seamlessly between the perspectives of multiple characters and providing strong characterisation (particularly of Marsh). His language is less dense than the first book, retaining the lyrical dexterity shown off in Bitter Seeds but finding a better balance with a thriller-like pacing that allowed me to read through The Coldest War much quicker than I did the first. Above all, it is always invigorating when you see a writer take on with a high-concept story and pull it off with aplomb. Tregillis is crafting something really special here, and the third book in the series, Necessary Evil, may well prove to be the best Milkweed book yet.