Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Ian Tregillis’s debut novel, Bitter Seeds, is set in a world in which the Nazis have a highly successful scientific experiment to create individuals with enhanced powers. When word of these experiments is leaked, the British send Raybould Marsh to gather whatever information he can and bring it back to London. Marsh's mission goes horribly awry, but not before he is able to recover evidence that the Nazis are pursuing a very strange, and dangerous, line of research.
The story is told through the eyes of various characters, most notable Marsh for the British and Klaus, who can become incorporeal, for the Nazis, although Tregillis changes his viewpoint characters as necessary, allowing Marsh’s friend, Will Beauclerk, to have a lengthy narrative as well. The multiple viewpoints allow the reader to have information that Marsh wouldn't have, which tends to detract from the mystery element of the novel, but also allows Tregillis to create a more complete vision of his alternative world. Tregillis is also able to maintain the sense of mystery by the careful placement of hints and foreshadowing in the form of Klaus's sister, Gretel.
The majority of the novel is taken up with the cat and mouse activities of Marsh and the von Westarp group. Perhaps the primary weapon of the Germans is Gretel, whose clairvoyance allows her to know what will happen and who acts in total acceptance that the future is set. Importantly, Tregillis does not use Gretel as a viewpoint characters since to do so would give away the direction of his story. Her knowledge, however, is intriguing to the reader and concerning to the Germans, who begin to question, if not her loyalty, what she isn’t telling them about the future. Her interactions with Marsh generally leave him perplexed and he is never able to get a particularly clear understanding of what her abilities are. To combat Gretel's powers and the rest of the von Westarp group, Marsh must seek out the mysterious and possibly threatening powers of the Eidolons, who he never completely understands or trusts.
Tregillis is not only interested in Marsh and Beauclerk's war efforts. Marsh's personal life also gets attention, focusing on his first meeting with Liv and the advancement of their relationship until it becomes a tool for the Germans to use against him. Marsh's friendship with Beauclerk also becomes essential to the war effort as Beauclerk's arcane knowledge may be the only thing which can counter von Westarp's group. Seeing Marsh's character in a variety of mundane settings provides a good counterbalance to his role as a spy for her majesty and his ability to keep his real occupation a secret from those who don't need to know offers an interesting look at the human side of his role. Klaus's relationship with his sister offers a similar look at the other side, although with Klaus not fully understanding what his sister knows, it creates its own distance between the pair.
Although the first volume of a trilogy, Bitter Seeds stands nicely on its own even as Gretel is insistent that she will meet Marsh again, presumably in a future volume. The hints planted by Tregillis point to further political, military, and personal intrigue as Marsh’s relationship with his wife, the Eidolons, and Gretel are revealed.
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