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Bitter Seeds

Posted by Dan Smyth On Friday, July 01, 2011

Why do all good YA novels have adults in them that are either incompetent, abusive, or otherwise inattentive to the point-of-view children? Easy answer: because any rational adult seeing children in such horrific and/or dangerous circumstances, would without a second thought step into the story, hide the kids in the basement, and call the SWAT team to take out the bad guys. How on earth does that even remotely apply to an alternate historical fantasy based on WWII German superhumans fighting magic-wielding Warlocks? Stick around and find out.

BITTER SEEDS is Ian Tregillis’s debut novel and the first in the Milkweed Triptych. Apparently when the guy isn’t working at Los Alamos National Labs, he chums around with writers like George R. R. Martin and Daniel Abraham. Smart people + smart writers = total coolness. To say the least, I was interested in this one before I ever found out what it was about. And after I did? Talk about upping the stakes.

The novel centers around World War II with POVs from both sides of the struggle. From England, we get Lieutenant-Commander Raybould Marsh, former soldier and current member of the Secret Intelligence Service, who gets caught up in the workings of an uber-secret group named Milkweed after he recovers a filmstrip showing German super-humans flying, and disappearing, and levitating machine guns. His buddy, the wealthy Englishman William Beauclerk, has been lazing about trying to get into trouble when Marsh approches him with news of the supernatural. This isn’t totally off, as Will’s family is one of a long line of Warlocks, who can use their skills to engage the powers of the Eidolons, a magical race of uber-creatures that remind one of nothing more than mini-cthulus. From the German side we get Klaus. He’s one of the sought-after super-humans and can essentially turn himself into a ghost for as long as he can hold his breath and his battery, to which he is wired, has a charge. Klaus has contemporaries, however, that include a man that can incinerate pretty much anything, a nearly-mindless cripple that can smash armored tanks to bits, and his sister, Greta, who can see into the future. Throw all of this goodness together with crushed ice, shake, pour, and you can’t help but get awesome, right?


Well, I admit, there is some awesome to be had, but overall most of it just fizzled for me. First the good though.

The biggest thing going for this novel is the descriptions. Great setting, history, sense of place. Interesting and complicated concepts are easily understood. Not once did I get held up because I didn’t understand something. There are also a lot of pretty cool ideas that have been put into the story. Background and history and continual intrigue also factor into the works. Characterization was decent, though two of the main PoV character, Marsh and Will, were pretty much indistinguishable from one another. Prose is well-done and reads fast.

A large issue I had though was that it just didn’t feel like any of the main characters did anything of note. Marsh goes on a number of recon missions and feeds information back to his superiors. Will collects up all his Grandfather’s friends that are Warlocks and then let them deal with the Eidolons. Mostly what Klaus seems to do is run away from things. There were a few times that he made decisions, but they really didn’t lead anywhere. Most of these complaints can probably be boiled down to the fact that there really wasn’t a logical, progressive plot that I could follow. I didn’t know from one chapter to the next really what was happening, or what any of the individual groups were trying to accomplish. Most of the story is told from a very high-level summary-laden perspective, with infrequent character-centric moments, and on the whole just didn’t work very well to relay the story. You can probably chalk this one up to the fact that the guy is a new author though. He'll learn to be better.

Despite the good and the bad that I found here, the piece that really took all the tension out of everything for me was Klaus’s sister, Greta. She’s a pre-cognitive without a leash, and as such she pretty much just pulls everyone’s strings. They all dance to her whims, whether they know it or not, and though it's stated several times throughout the book that she’s most likely a sociopath, I didn’t really get that from the interaction I saw from her. For me, Greta was just like the well-meaning parent that swoops in to save the day, placing her children in the basement and taking care of everything herself. Granted, she does make one decision that questions my opinion in this regard, but I just couldn’t bring myself to see her as a sociopathic manipulator rather than a benevolent dictator.

In the end, this one was nearly a study for me in amazing potential leading to disappointment. I can’t say that it was bad, but it wasn’t great either. From what I understand though, due to some truly horrific circumstances associated with Tregillis's previous editor, the entire trilogy is essentially done and waiting for approval from his current editor. Not Rothfuss-done. Just done. So that can’t be a bad thing for readers. If you do pick this one up and find that you like it, at least you can be happy that they’ll probably be put out fairly fast.

Recommended age: 18+
Language: Infrequent, but strong
Violence: A few bloody fight scenes but for the most part, no
Sex: Very little, though there are a few direct references to necrophilia

Ian Tregillis's Website


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