The Coldest War: All About Gretel.
Posted February 29, 2016on:
This is a not review, because I’m not really going to be talking about what happened in the plot of The Coldest War. To be honest, I was sorta ho-hum about most of the plot. But the characters, oh my god, with just a glance in my direction Marsh and Gretel bored holes right through me. And in a way, since this is an alternate history, as in something that could have happened but didn’t, the plot doesn’t actually, in the grand scheme of the universe, matter, does it?
The Coldest War takes place during the early 1960s, so twenty some years after Bitter Seeds. Klaus and Gretel have spent twenty years as prisoners of war in the USSR; and over in London Raybould Marsh and William Beauclerk have spent twenty some years trying to convince themselves they did the right things, that it was worth it.
So let’s talk about the characters, who you’ve already met if you’ve read the first book in the series, Bitter Seeds.
I feel like comparing characters in this book to gambling addicts. Addicts because Marsh and Beauclerk keep saying they can stop anytime they want…. but they can’t. They keep thinking the next bargain will even things out, that they’ll “win” next time, for various values of “winning”. It’s like the guy I saw buying scratch off lottery tickets the other day. He was joking with the clerk that last week he won $3 on a scratch off ticket… but that he’d spent $19 on the tickets. There was an edge of addiction in his nervous laughter, an underscore of him saying he could stop anytime he wanted.
Raybould Marsh, pays for his war-time decisions every day. His marriage has been in shambles for twenty years, haunted by the loss of an infant daughter and then the birth of a son who suffers from a non-medical condition that is as yet undiagnosed. Every time Marsh looks as his wife he sees every lie he ever told her about what he really did for the war effort. He sees her disappointment in what he’s become. Every time he feeds his son he sees what shouldn’t have been. Marsh is a completely broken man, and there is no escape. Is living this life exactly what he deserves? He helped win the god damn war! Everything is worth it if the British Empire continues, isn’t it? Right?
And then there’s Gretel, around whom everything revolves. Thanks to the German experimentations towards ubermen in the 30s, she has precognition. This is a woman for whom the past, present and future exist simultaneously. There is a scene early in The Coldest War, where she and her brother Klaus find a jar on a shelf which allows them to escape their prison. Klaus remembers that jar once held the brain of their childhood friend who had committed suicide. He realizes Gretel was complicit in the person’s suicide so that this particular jar would be in the this particular place at this particular moment. He realizes he’s always been her pawn. And things like that happen over and over again, characters realizing that Gretel is orchestrating events so that her past or future self will be able to do something or know something, and we are all her pawns. It’s not that our 1963 is that her past or future, it’s that all of these things exist at the same time for her. Remember the escape scene in Minority Report where Tom Cruise’s character and Samantha Norton’s character are running through the shopping mall, and she tells him to stop so that balloons will hide him from someone? Hanging out with Gretel is like that. Except she plays a much longer game. I could talk about her for hours. But she probably already knew that.
Thinking about a pre-cog has me all thinking about predestination and free will. If Gretel knows what you’re going to have for breakfast and she knows what questions you’re going to ask her, and she already knows what shirt you’re going to put on, do you have free will? Since she’s already seen it happen, do you have any choice in what you do, even if you think/believe you’re choosing? And truly, she needs certain things to happen in a certain way, so that certain other things can happen. It’s like playing a game of chess in reverse, I suppose. All the horrible things she causes to happen, they are necessary . . . right? Are people’s disgust at her a mis-aimed disgust at the idea that they don’t have free will?
The middle of the book felt really draggy to me, I felt like Klaus. He’s just being dragged around by his sister Gretel. He doesn’t get to do anything important, he’s just there and then things happen around him. That’s very much how the middle of this book felt. Well, Klaus gets to start a different life (yay! good for him!) and the end of The Coldest War is a completely unexpected holy shit moment that hours later I’m still floored by. Damn does Gretel play the long game! I wanted to hate her. I was told by all the other characters that she is the embodiment of everything horrible and evil. But I don’t hate her, and I don’t want her to die. I don’t like the things that she did, and I don’t want to go to the pub with her, but I don’t hate her. I am intrigued by her (and here’s me writing another 2 paragraphs that revolve around her!), I’d love to have her side of the story, I want to know what her end game is. Actually no, I don’t think I do want her side of the story, I’m worried I’d be completely disturbed by it. Half way through The Coldest War I was like “meh, I don’t know if I’m liking this enough to read the 3rd book”, and by the end of the book I was like “omg what bookshelf in my house is the third book on!”. So, there’s that.
changing gears just slightly, I get all emotional and worked up whenever a character says “I’m doing this for my family”. That’s my button, and there’s a right way to push it. Tregillis completely pushed it nearly as far as it would go at the end of The Coldest War. I finished this book early on a Saturday morning, and my husband was still in bed. I climbed back into bed and snuggled right up to him, desperate to catch as many more seconds of physical contact as I could. Books like this make me want to hoard those moments – the smell of his hair, how his eyebrows look when his glasses aren’t hiding them, the sound of his breath, the curl of his relaxed fingers around the corner of the pillow, the curve of his shoulder, the calico cat coloring of the stubble on his chin. So, there’s also that.
Now, where’s that third book? Oh yeah, corner bookshelf in the bedroom, and there’s a little voice in the back of my head that’s asking did Gretel orchestrate that my friend Andy purchased books 2 and 3 a few years ago, decided this series wasn’t for him, and then passed the books to me so that the 3rd book would be right where I needed it, right when I needed it?