the Little Red Reviewer

Bitter Seeds, by Ian Tregillis

Posted on: August 24, 2013

Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis

published in 2010

where I got it: purchased new

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I’ve been avoiding this book for a while now. Alternate history is always fun, but I tend to shy away from War stories. When this book was chosen for my local book club, there was no getting around it.

The first few chapters were a little rough going for me, more because the time and place jumps around with little context than that I wasn’t sure I wanted to be reading this. A british boy is caught ripping plants out of a garden, another British child is hidden from his terrifying grandfather, and elsewhere two dark complected siblings survive a harrowing journey to an orphanage in Germany. Time jumps forward nineteen years, it’s 1939, and suddenly I wished I’d paid more attention in history class.

The young boy in the garden is Raybould Marsh. Mentored and then sponsored by John Stephenson, Marsh grows up to become a spy for Her Majesty. Sent to Spain in 1939 to meet an informant,  Marsh gets the clue that something strange is going on when the man bursts into flames, taking most of his evidence with him. The evidence that Stephenson’s team is able to reconstruct makes no sense, and to investigate it, project Milkweed is born.

The siblings are Klaus and Gretel, and the orphanage later becomes Reichsbehörde für die Erweiterung Germanischen Potenzials , the Authority for the Advancement of German Potential. For the glory of the Reich, Dr. von Westarp has spent twenty years trying to create supermen. The subject’s willpower, or willenskrafte, is augmented by battery power, allowing the person to fly, or set something on fire, or read minds, or disappear, or who yet knows what else. Klaus’s talent lies in dematerializing into an ethereal ghost capable of moving through walls and people, and Gretel’s talent lies in seeing the future. The surgical procedures are experimental and dangerous, and nobody talks about the rows and rows of child sized graves.

Across the channel, Marsh’s friend William Beauclerk suggests the Germans may have bargained for their superhuman powers from the Eidolons, creatures who reside between dimensions. Will could only know these things because his grandfather tried to train him as a warlock. The ranks of Milkweed swells, with enlisted men who file and photograph, and warlocks who chant in inhuman words behind closed doors. One doesn’t just call up an Eidolon and ask for a Quarter Pounder or the ability to fly. You bargain, and there’s no going back once the terms have been agreed upon. To give you an idea of what I mean, there’s a scene where someone has a finger lopped off, and that’s just the cost for a tiny yes or no question.

I have an appreciation for magic systems that are expensive. Not even Gandalf should just be able to snap his fingers and do something. Magic should come with a cost. I don’t care if it’s years of studying, or holding your breath for 5 minutes, or spilling blood, or sacrificing an animal, or losing a memory, or killing another human, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. The high prices exist to keep you from spending beyond your means.

When the cost gets too high you are supposed to know it’s time to stop.

In Bitter Seeds, the prices get too high, yet no one is interested in stopping. This is some of the darkest fiction I have ever read, and it’s not an easy book to talk about. Will, who starts out a flighty rich kid, loses his humanity with every month that passes. Marsh becomes obsessed with Gretel, and her sociopathy knows no bounds. Klaus just seems to go about his business, doing what people tell him to do, and trying to protect his sister from physical harm. Stephenson sees the ever increasing blood prices as a means to an end, and no price is too high to save the British Empire.

My mass market paperback also included the short story What Doctor Gottlieb Saw, in which we get a deeper look into Gretel’s motivations, and some of Klaus’s phobias. The more I think about that short story, the more I wonder if it’s the most important part of the whole book. It’s at the end, a sort of epilogue, and I do recommend reading it last for the best effect. Or of course, you can read it right now, on Tor.com, and get a feel for Bitter Seeds.

Most of the book travels along at a fairly fast clip, with chapter headings giving a date and location, often in England or Germany, but elsewhere as well. It was the last few chapters where the tension and pace are ratcheted up, and clinched the whole thing for me, ensuring I’ll continue reading this series. The dehumanizing violence I can do without, but Will’s experience becomes so compelling, that I want to see how his character develops.

This first book in the series has been out since 2010, so I’m curious, if you’ve read Bitter Seeds or other books in this series, did you find them difficult to talk about? We all showed up to book club the other night, some people really liked the book, others didn’t care for it, but no one really wanted to talk about it for any length of time. I can handle some pretty dark stuff, and this one almost crossed the line for me.

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15 Responses to "Bitter Seeds, by Ian Tregillis"

Yep, I’ve read this and Coldest War. Haven’t read Necessary Evil yet. I recently “re-read” Bitter Seeds by means of listening to the audiobook on my vacation this year. Yes, definitely very dark, very tough stuff. High Prices are definitely paid. I do think that while there are weaknesses (some of which I saw more clearly on the “re-read”) its doing and trying things uncommon in the genre.

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“its doing and trying things uncommon in the genre.” I absolutely agree with that. Sort of if Tim Powers wrote ultra-grimdark.

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I’ve been curious about this one, so I was glad to see your review. I’ll add it to my TBR list.

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I’ll be interested to hear what you think of it.

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It’s on my TBR pile and has been for a while now. At some point I need to dust it off and read it. Reading the review, it may have moved up closer to the top. :)

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yes yes, read it! :D

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I read last year and I think I bought the sequel as well, but I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet.
I must go read that short story you mentioned.

Bitter Seeds seemed to me to be all about how dirty war really is. None of this “glory of battle” nonsense, but the day to day horribleness that *is* war. Only with warlocks and super-soldiers.

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yeah, you hit it on the head. at the end of a war, a winner is declared. but in reality, everyone has lost.

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I listened to Bitter Seeds on Audible.com after listening to Ian Tregillis on a panel at Bubonicon. It’s dark, nitty gritty stuff. I really liked that both sides – the British magic and the German experiments – had a deep cost. I’m looking forward to reading the next in the series.

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Not yet, but it’s been added to the list! :-)

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I was excited when I saw you reviewed this one. Bitter Seeds has been a favorite for some time. I am exceedingly fond of power with cost, and Ian did that very well- from the mystical to the straightforward power people and nations seek through war. I also enjoy reading how writers approach aberrant psychology, so there was a lot for me to digest in this one. It is definitely not an easy book. But it is one worth talking about.

I have read all three books in the series.

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I LOVED this book and this series. It blew me away. Then again, I also like my dark so dark most people can’t handle it. Call me morbid. The darker the better. Bitter Seeds and etc scratched that itch.

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This isn’t a book I would have ever picked up on my own, but I do remember when you were talking about it so positively on your blog. If you liked it, I knew I’d probably like it. You and i like similar flavors of way-too-dark!

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I think part of the reason Bitter Seeds comes off as being so dark is our ability to see ourselves (humanity) in the characters. Both Will and Marsh are good men driven to horrible acts by their desire to prevail against a foe that is anathema to civilized society. It’s also easier to empathize when the characters feel as though they could be your neighbours.

In some ways Tolkien’s books are darker and more violent, but the world he built is so far removed from our own that it doesn’t have the immediateness to our own experiences Tregellis’ work has. Um…minus the Nazi cyborgs and British Warlocks, that is.

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” is our ability to see ourselves (humanity) in the characters. Both Will and Marsh are good men driven to horrible acts”

that. exactly that! and it gets to the point where i start to ask myself if I was in that situation, would I be able to find a better way out? I probably wouldn’t. How I can I blame a character who is pretty much doing the best they can in a crappy situation?

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