Sunday, October 6, 2013

Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis

So I watched The Boys from Brazil recently, and it send me on a bit of a quest to track down any and all occult-Nazi-themed books or movies I could find. Turns out I had at least three of them already festering on my bookshelf, waiting for my fickle attention to turn to them. First up is Bitter Seeds, the first book in the so-called 'Milkweed triptych'.

So after looking up 'triptych' in the online dictionary (and finding that strictly speaking, it's not an appropriate way to refer to a trilogy of books), I checked out the book. On the cover, there's a close-up of a Nazi officer with a nice warm-looking jacket on and an insignia with a skull on it, all in greyscale. The only thing making this Nazi look less than badass is the fact that he appears to have a rather thin, gauzy scarf wrapped around his neck.  There's also some photoshop sparks or something in the corner. On the back there's a quote from another author saying 'MAD ENGLISH WARLOCKS BATTLING TWISTED NAZI PSYCHICS? YES PLEASE, THANK YOU.' I don't know about you but this sort of conjures up images of a Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles-type scenario for me in which two teams of individual and lovable misfits (each with their own action figure) duke it out every week with nobody ever dying. Which is, all in all, not really what I want from my occult-nazi fiction.

Fortunately, I was wrong.

Bitter Seeds chronicles the birth of Milkweed, a British secret service project set up to investigate and combat alleged Nazi supernatural activities. Evidence of these activities first comes to light when Raybould Marsh, a two-fisted working-class agent, sees a man burst into flames in civil-war Spain. Seems those dastardly Nazis are using the Spanish war as a testing-ground for their psychic weapon program. Marsh smuggles one section of film back to England: though damaged, it clearly shows men and women walking through walls, bursting into fire and lifting heavy objects with their minds. Milkweed is born, and Marsh begins scouring the country for the kind of men who he needs to combat this threat: warlocks, many unstable or slightly mad Chief among them is his old friend, the aristocratic Will.

The English and the Germans both utilise very different forms of the paranormal in their struggle. The German ubermensch are the result of mad science. One Dr von Westarp, having kidnapped children decades earlier, has raised them under horrific conditions and subjected them to disfiguring surgery in order to boost their psychic potential. Each of them carries a special battery which they need to boost their latent powers, and each has a particular power which is unique to them - as mentioned above, one can control fire, one can fly, etc. Not many of the original test subjects have survived the procedure however, so there's only a few of these gifted individuals about by the time the war starts. They feud amongst one another constantly, and one of them is among our point-of-view characters.

The British, on the other hand, seem to be tapping into a long occult tradition of contacting ancient gods and asking favours of them. Elder gods. Gods who are so omniscient and unfathomable that we are scarcely noticeable to them. Yep, in case you haven't noticed there's more than a touch of Lovecraft to this aspect of the book. But favours from a god don't come for free. Instead, these deities demand a blood sacrifice. It starts small; say the loss of a finger. But the costs rise at an alarming rate. And with a network of warlocks united for the first time in history to repel a possible German invasion, the costs to Britain are truly monstrous. The supernatural elements are handled skillfully, being both weird and unsettling as well as consistent.

Something I like is how Tregillis doesn't pretend that all this guff was going on behind the scenes in our timeline of the war. He doesn't even try. Instead, as soon as the Nazi psychics begin aiding the Blitzkrieg and the British wizards fill the channel with ethereal fog courtsey of ancient gods to block the Luftwaffe, it's clear that we're in an alternate history. And this rift only widens as the book carries on.

Bitter Seeds is a pretty dark book. A lot of authors say 'yeah, I didn't want to have characters who are morally black-and-white.' But not many authors have the balls to let the 'heroes' do the awful things they do in this book. There's some stuff that's really quite disturbing, and I wasn't expecting it at all; they do worse things than we ever see the Nazis doing (at least onscreen) in the book. And we're not talking small things either; we're talking things that are thematically (and in scope) comparable to the Holocaust.

Which is allright, really, I think. Because if you're going to write a silly, pulpish novel, then maybe you shouldn't just be allowed to drop Nazis into the mix without taking things a bit seriously. Nazism is a pretty heavy subject, and I think a sense of gravitas is sometimes welcome, instead of simply using them as cartoon bad guys for Indiana Jones (not that I don't love a bit of that occasionally).

I suspect that this will be the most serious of my occult-Nazi finds. Theme aside, the writing style is beautiful but grim, with the author frequently breaking from the narrative to provide spooky, gothic interludes about the war and the devastation and famine caused by the war. Oh, and he always finds time to let you know when there's a bunch of ravens about, and what they're thinking.

So if you like your occult-Nazi stories not so schlocky or pulpy, and if you like stories in which the 'heroes' have their lives shattered by the things they need to do in the name of their country, try Bitter Seeds.

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