Thursday, April 10, 2014

Ian Tregillis' BITTER SEEDS

If Tim Powers and H.P. Lovecraft somehow managed to reach out to one another across the dark and malevolent vastness of time and space to write a cosmic horror story set in World War II, the result might be something very like Bitter Seeds, the first volume of Ian Tregillis' Milkweed trilogy (or triptych, as the marketers of these books seem to insist on calling it).

Of course, Powers did write a World War II novel all his own, the wonderful spies-and-genies romp Declare, of which it was difficult not to think while following the adventures of Milkweed (itself so very reminiscent of Mike Mignola's Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, of Hellboy fame) and their unspellable (I'm lazy and lacking bandwidth so I'm not gonna look it up) Nazi German counterparts. Fortunately, I was not making the comparison to Tregillis' detriment; Bitter Seeds is as enjoyable as any Powers novel, and as well written, even though it's telling a very different tale.

The story begins at the tail end of World War I, when unsavory types are scouring the battle-ravaged countryside of Belgium and surrounding lands, harvesting orphans like so many rotting cabbages. Some weird doctor, one Westcarp, is paying good money for young children delivered to his orphanage. Several children, including a brother and sister, Klaus and Gretel, are so delivered to their sinister and mysterious fate.

Meanwhile in England, a boy about their age is subjected to mysterious and unsavory experiences under the supervision of his noble grandfather, a duke, whose son one presumes was a casualty of war but at least died with the requisite heir and a spare. The boy getting experimented with -- Will -- being, of course, the spare.

The Germans, led by Westcarp, it turns out, are trying in their mechanized and industrial way, to duplicate the magical milieu of Will and his grandfather, who, we learn, are warlocks. Warlocks being humanity's self-appointed negotiators with the Eidolons*, who arrange the "blood price" that has to be paid whenever somebody wants to break the laws of physics. Usually it's just a fingertip, occasionally it's your sanity, etc. -- really just depends on how big a violation you're wanting to effect.

The negotiations are carried out in a terrible, mind-bending language called Enochian, which you can only learn if you start really, really, young -- hence Will's weird childhood.

But Westcarp is not down with that ish. Westcarp has decided that electricity can take the place of Paranormal Pimsleur. And so Gretel and Klaus and their fellows wind up with wires surgically implanted in their skulls, connecting their brains to batteries they have to tote around in order to use the powers they have honed through years of unspeakable experimentation.

So yeah, English wizards versus Nazi cyborgs. What's not to love?

And I'm not even touching on the character drama, of course, which is where Tregillis comes closest to Powers' style and substance. If you love Powers' stories, you're going to love this. If you love mid-century settings. If you love wizardry. If you love war stories. If you love Nazi Weird Science schlock. There's something for pretty much everybody here.

And it's all set up for the next novel, in which, naturally, the Soviets are obviously going to be much more involved. They want to violate the laws of physics too, you guys. Which path will they take? Or will they forge a new one as we head into a Lovecraftian Cold War.

I'm so down to find out. So very down.

Many thanks to the wondrous Paul Weimer (@PrinceJvstin on Twitter), who told me about these books over a cup of coffee on a whistle stop visit last summer.

*This is where the Lovecraft comes in, of course, in that the Eidolons are basically Great Old Ones, unknowably vast alien inimical Others who exist on such a scale that we are like bacteria to them, and they're pissed off because they're all out of hand sanitizer.

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