Bitter Seeds (Milkweed #1) by Ian Tregillis
Publisher: Tor/April, 2012
It’s 1939. The Nazis have supermen, the British have demons, and one perfectly normal man gets caught in betweenRaybould Marsh is a British secret agent in the early days of the Second World War, haunted by something strange he saw on a mission during the Spanish Civil War: a German woman with wires going into her head who looked at him as if she knew him.
When the Nazis start running missions with people who have unnatural abilities—a woman who can turn invisible, a man who can walk through walls, and the woman Marsh saw in Spain who can use her knowledge of the future to twist the present—Marsh is the man who has to face them. He rallies the secret warlocks of Britain to hold the impending invasion at bay. But magic always exacts a price. Eventually, the sacrifice necessary to defeat the enemy will be as terrible as outright loss would be.
It’s late 1920, and “orphaned” children are finding themselves at the Children’s Home for Human Enlightenment, nestled in the German countryside, under the care of Herr Doktor von Westarp. The good doctor isn’t there to help these unfortunates, though. His purpose is of a more diabolical sort. Gruesome experiments are being performed on innocent children and people in the upper echelons of the Nazi party are taking notice. As adults, they will be supermen, and the world won’t know what hit them. Meanwhile, in England, a clever young orphan is being groomed to be a spy.
In 1939 Raybould Marsh is in Spain when he confronts a man who seems to have information about Dr. von Westarp’s children, but before he can questions him further, the man spontaneously combusts. As he prepares to leave Spain, he sees a woman with wires coming from her head that seems to recognize him. He’s managed to rescue a valise that contains a film reel, and upon returning to England, turns the film over to Stephenson, the man who raised him and taught him how to be a successful spy for MI6. When the film is reconstructed, what’s on it is terrifying, and a new mission is formed, called Milkweed. Under Milkweed, Marsh and his oldest and dearest friend, Will, a warlock, must track down these supermen and stop them before the Nazi’s destroy their country, and everything they love. Will must use his power to call on the Eidelons, beings of infinite time and space, to help them reshape the future, but their power comes at a price: a blood price. Eventually, these beings won’t be content with a few drops of blood, and the consequences are terrifying, even as they manage to hold back the German hordes.
Bitter Seeds uses the backdrop of WWII as a setting for a sprawling battle of good, evil, and grey. The narrative goes back and forth between the Reichsbehorde (the supermen) and the English spies and warlocks that are determined to wipe them off the map. There is the telekinetic brute, Kemmler, who is simpleminded and controlled by another man wielding a leash attached to a collar around his neck; Klaus, who can dematerialize and move through solid objects; Reinhardt, who can set fire to anything (and anyone) with his mind; Heike, who can go completely invisible; and Gretel, Klaus’s sister, who is a precog. As terrifying as this group is, Gretel is the scariest of them all. Her sociopathic tendencies are evident from the beginning, and even Klaus grows concerned that she cannot be controlled. Klaus is the most even tempered of the group, and he’s the focal point of the group. The secret to their powers is a battery pack attached to various wires that are attached to their skulls. Makes for a creepy picture, yes? Creepy is definitely one word for it. Clever and, of course, powerful, they’re a force to be reckoned with, but they are definitely not limitless because of their dependence on the batteries. It’s this dependence that Milkweed hopes to exploit. Unfortunately, this mission takes its toll on Marsh, his young family, and his friendship with Will. Terrible sacrifices are made for the good of the whole and death becomes only one more step to victory. As scary as the supermen are, you can’t help but pity them. Taken as children and programmed as killing machines, they are only a mechanism, mere cogs, in the huge machine that is Nazi Germany. They can be pitied, but never underestimated, however. Marsh and Co. have to martial enormous resources to fight this threat, because the price for not fighting is much too great. The action scenes are thrilling, the characters fascinating, and even if you’re not usually a fan of alternate history, fantasy and espionage fans will find much to like. Ian Tregillis is definitely a talent to watch, and I’ll look forward to reading the 2nd book in the series, The Coldest War!