Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Coldest War by Ian Tregillis

Writers are not gods. They're not superhuman, they don't completely understand the world any more than the rest of us do, and they can't see the future. But, sometimes, their characters have to be some or all of those things. And that then is one of the toughest tests for a writer of the fantastic: how to believably depict someone vastly smarter, powerful, and knowledgeable than the writer. Of course, the writer starts off with an advantage: the entire fictional world is his to mold and create, but, in the end, those godlike entities (weakly or strongly) have to be godlike, to do and see and know things that the humans in the story don't and in ways that surprise and impress the reader.

Ian Tregillis clearly is not afraid of writing godlike entities: he has a whole race of them (mostly offstage, and almost entirely unknowable) in his "Milkweed Triptych" books, and the central character of that trilogy is a cold, calculating woman named Gretel who can see the future -- more than that, who has seen a near-infinity of possible futures and calibrates her actions and the effects she can cause to steer the entire world to the one future she wants.

Gretel is central to this trilogy, but she's not our main character: she's too much of an enigma, too casually cruel. Besides, she's not where the action is -- she tells people things to get them to act, so the interesting events happen at one remove. The viewpoint characters are three men -- Gretel's brother Klaus, the British spy Raybould Marsh, and William Beauclerk, an aristocrat with a deep and disturbing inheritance.

The first book in the Milkweed Triptych was 2010's Bitter Seeds (see my review; I also put it on my list of favorite books of that year), which told the story of an alternate WWII: one where the Germans had discovered a technique to turn a few people into superhumans (and kill the vast majority of the children they put through the process) and where the British countered with ritual magic, invoking otherdimensional beings called Eidolons who would commit nearly any act of destruction if it reduced the number of living beings in the world. Bitter Seeds told the story of that world's second world war: shorter, bloodier, nastier.

The Milkweed Triptych continues with The Coldest War, which was just published in mid-July. As the title implies, it's set twenty years later, in a 1963 beset by a much icier Cold War than our own world. The Soviets captured the remnants of the Nazi program and systematized it, as Soviets were so good at. And the British have found ways to industrialize their own supernatural resources, as well. The stakes in Bitter Seeds were about which country would dominate the other, but Coldest War raises the possibility that the world may not survive their conflict: remember that those Eidolons would like to do nothing so much as wipe humanity from the face of the world, and every negotiation with them has the chance for a catastrophic error that will let them in for good.

Klaus, Ray, and Will are all twenty years older in Coldest War as well: slower, more battered by life, with fewer resources of their own to make it through. Ray has spiraled down, having left the government long before and being trapped in the sour shards of a marriage by his profoundly damaged now-adult son (though he doesn't know why his son is so damaged, or that someone was responsible). Will seems fine, but has been consumed by secret guilt for his part in the war effort -- he led the magicians that called down the Eidolons, and thus also found them the ever-increasing amount of blood and deaths they needed for their aid -- and has made horrible choices to assuage that guilt. Klaus has been a virtual prisoner of the Soviets for twenty years, stuck with his sister and their few remaining compatriots from the war years in a secret city deep in Russia, helping to train the new generations of superhumans.

The Coldest War is the story of how those three men come together, and how the world comes apart. I'm sorry to say that it's very much the middle book of a trilogy -- primarily because I want to read that not-yet-extant third book right now -- but it's as compelling, chilling, and darkly plausible as Bitter Seeds was. Tregillis has a tough, merciless eye, and takes his premises to their logical conclusions; there's a Chekhov's Gun on the mantelpiece of this trilogy, and he knows that he must use it.

New readers should find Bitter Seeds first, of course, but that's no hardship: those new readers have two excellent, darkly entertaining novels ahead of them. The Milkweed books are in the tradition of Tim Powers's best novels, though with a willingness to bend history to tell a new story. And they may be of interest to readers of Charles Stross's "Laundry Files" novels: Tregillis is deadly serious while Stross is sardonic, but Tregillis's Eidolons are a less baroque version of the Lovecraftian horrors of Stross's world, and the sense of tension and potential danger is not dissimilar. Look: if you like to read smart fantasy, and know enough about WWII to know which country was on which side, you'll enjoy these novels: they're compellingly readable, filled with amazingly real characters, and have awesomely terrifying and impressive moments. Tregillis is already a major fantasy writer with this series he's no longer someone to "watch" or "keep an eye on" -- he's here.

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