Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 91 (5/5) -- Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis

Secret history and alternate history are the conjoined twins of speculative fiction -- it often depends on a particular reader knowing specific information to be able to definitively place a story as one of the other. But there's a seemingly bright-line distinction: a secret history is something that could have happened this way, in our world, without the experts knowing, or letting the public know. Secret histories have the power of truth to them, or of a strong conspiracy theory -- the Edward de Vere assertion is a classic secret history that escaped into the realms of ostensible non-fiction. But an alternate history is a story about a world that's different from our own -- where something, or some things, happened, and changed the world entirely.

For quite a while, Bitter Seeds lies right in that borderland, not clearly secret or alternate. The bulk of the story takes place in 1939-1941, but it begins with three short scenes on an October day in 1920, each with a boy on the verge of a new life: Klaus, a German war orphan delivered to a strange establishment; Raybould Marsh, a hungry and fatherless boy taken under the wing of a wounded RAF Captain; and William Beauclerk, younger son of a great noble family, and heir to a darker, more secretive inheritance from his grandfather.

When 1939 comes around, Marsh's benefactor, John Stephenson, is a power in the Secret Intelligence Service, and Marsh is an agent in the field during the waning days of the Spanish Civil War, tasked to deliver a German scientist, and his notes, back to England. The scientist is killed -- he bursts into flame, seemingly for no reason, in the middle of a cafe -- but Marsh does manage to get some of his notes and pieces of film back to Stephenson and the SIS. The film shows impossible things:
A shirtless man hovering twenty feet above an orchard. Half a second of nothing but a brick wall, then a nude woman standing before it with no transition. A young man with pale eyes laying his hand on an anvil, the film shimmering, the metal sagging. Another man standing halfway inside a wall, like a ghost. A muscular fellow on a leash (a leash?) scowling at a mortar emplacement that imploded upon itself. The ghost man standing in front of a chattering machine gun. The leashed man scowling at an upside-down tank. A soldier throwing something at the anvil man, and a flash.

The subjects of the film wore belts with dark leads running up to their skulls; each and every one of them. (p.85)
The subjects on the film, Stephenson's boffins explain, were the subjects of experiments conducted by Doctor Karl Heinrich von Westarp at the Reichsbehorde fur die Erweiterung germanischen Potenzials -- that much the SIS knows, but little more. The reader, though, knows that the "ghost man" is Klaus, whose power allows him to pass through objects (or vice versa) unharmed. The reader also knows that the most dangerous power of the REGP is not shown in that film -- it's Klaus's sister Gretel, who has an infallible ability to predict the future, and a malicious pleasure in twisting events to her own ends.

But Britain is not defenseless against von Westarp's children -- Marsh calls on Beauclerk, who was his friend at university, and with whom he once shared a very strange moment in those days. For there's a secret tradition of magic among a few British families -- a long history of summoning multidimensional entities called Eidolons through the ur-human language, Enochian, and through blood sacrifice. And Beauclerk is now an initiate of that tradition -- so Marsh brings him into Project Milkweed, a super-secret project, under Stephenson's direction, to defend England from the REGP's powers -- and, more importantly, to smash Germany's ability to make more.

But the Eidolons aren't more than barely comprehensible to humans, and demand greater and greater sacrifices for their aid -- what they want, more than anything else, is the destruction of any life that isn't them. Beauclerk and his fellow mages can keep bargaining with the Eidolons to save England -- even after a much bloodier German offensive, led by the REGP's agents, and even after a vastly more disastrous Dunkirk, and even as the Luftwaffe systematically destroy all of England's human-scale defenses, all following the scenarios Gretel passes to Himmler and the SS.

On the other side of the war, Klaus sees his sister manipulate events herself -- until the reader begins to wonder if she's as bloodthirsty, as happy with pure death and destruction for its own sake, as the Eidolons themselves. And, by the time Bitter Seeds ends in late 1941, the reader knows two things: first, that this novel is definitely an alternate history. And second, that Bitter Seeds will not be the end of the story.

This is a compelling novel, a dispatch from one of the worlds where WWII was even worse -- at least for some populations -- than it was in our world. I expect things will get even bleaker, for everyone in this world, in the years to come -- the REGP's methods will be used much more widely, and I wouldn't be surprised if the Eidolons are called on more and more often to counter them -- with higher and higher sacrifices required each time. This may be Tregillis's first novel, but that doesn't show at all -- and I hope his second will follow as quickly as possible.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: The Builders And The Butchers - Raise Up Your Weary Hands
via FoxyTunes

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