Bitter Seeds–Ian Tregillis

Bitter Seeds

“The price has been negotiated.  It will be paid.”

“The Hell it will!  Tell it to sod off.”

“My friends.”  Will spoke in a rigidly neutral tone.  The strain of maintaining his composure and concentration showed in the beads of moisture on his forehead.  “One does not renege on these negotiations…At best we can control the circumstances of the payment.”

At the dawn of the 20th century, many nations looked toward the creation of a superior human through the study of eugenics, a scientific pursuit that was taken to horrifying extremes under the Nazi regime during the 40’s.  In pursuit of the Übermensch, physicians such as Joseph Mengele became notorious for their barbaric experimentation and disregard for human life, while Adolf Hitler’s attitude towards race and racial “purification” (aryanization) directly led to the Holocaust and the genocide of over six million Jews by war’s end in 1945.  Once the atrocities of the camps were exposed to the wider world, the concept of eugenics fell out of favour with the world community.  Ian Tregillis’ Bitter Seeds is the story of an alternate 20th century in which the Nazi’s were successful in bringing about the Übermensch and placing England in such desperate straits as to delve into forces both unnatural and malevolent to counter their Nazi foes.

While on a mission to extract a German defector from Franco’s Spain during the Spanish Civil War, Lieutenant-Commander Raybould Marsh of the S.I.S. (Secret Intelligence Service) witnesses something beyond his ability to comprehend when his contact spontaneously combusts right before his eyes.  All that’s left of the informant’s belongings are some charred papers and the remnants of a remarkable, almost unbelievable film.  Once the film is reconstructed, it shows German test subjects purported to be exhibiting paranormal abilities.  One subject seemingly walks through walls, another crushes objects with his mind and yet a third demonstrates the ability to create and shape fire to his purposes.  Yet it is a young woman who bears no obvious outward manifestation that will prove to be the most dangerous weapon of this Nazi arsenal. 

Once the war begins in earnest, this group of Wunderwaffen prove their worth, forcing Marsh and his mentor in the secret service, John Stephenson, to enlist the help of Marsh’s college friend—and Warlock—Lord William Beauclerk.  Together, they assemble a unit (code-named Milkweed) comprised of Britain’s foremost magical talents to “negotiate” with otherworldly presences known as Eidolons to assure the safety of the home countries.  However, the assistance of these demonic forces comes with a price—a blood price—that quickly escalates as England’s situation deteriorates.  Beyond the physical blood price is the spiritual one as these patriots commit reprehensible acts upon their own countrymen to secure the continued cooperation of their supernatural allies.  As the novel goes on, the British find themselves in a morally suspect situation, and Will begins to suspect that the price of victory—even to stop the evil that is the Third Reich—may not be worth what they’ve sacrificed, both physically and spiritually.  The morally dubious English alliance with Stalin’s Soviet Union that in reality allowed an allied victory is in this alternate history replaced with a morally bankrupt alternative in the form of the mysterious Eidolons.

Bitter Seeds is a wonderfully well written novel.  It’s also incredibly dark and depressing, especially as the reader slowly realizes the depths to which the ostensive “good-guys” will sink in their moral corruption.  The actions of the British Warlocks stretch the meaning of the phrase, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” to incredulity.  Without giving away any spoilers, the price to be paid for each victory “negotiated” with the Eidolons is an assault on the basic morality of otherwise honourable men.  The novel poses the question of whether or not the ends can always justify the means.  What price would you pay; what heinous actions would you undertake, in the name of the greater good?  Could you kill a child if it would end the war?  How about two?  Or twenty?  Who decides what the greater good is or what price is acceptable, especially if one’s essential morality is lost in the process?  

Of the characters in the novel, it is somewhat ironic that Will, the facilitator of the Milkweed project, is the only character to stop long enough to examine himself and his motives.  He begins the novel as a patriot who wants to do something for his country and as a byproduct impress his brother, and further to be seen as something more than an aristocratic fop.  Later, he comes to question the road they’ve travelled and the price of his actions.  Marsh is a less introspective character, beginning the novel as the good son, modeling his career on that of his adoptive father (the aforementioned John Stephenson, a patriotic yet cold and cunning man) and slowly losing his moral compass as tragedy envelops his family and in his desperation to foil the Nazi Übermensch.

Surprisingly, Tregillis gives us a well-rounded depiction of the Nazi super soldiers, from the principled Klaus to the amoral Reinhardt, the sympathetic simpleton that is Kammler and the self-conscious Heike, and of course, the inscrutable Gretel, to whom everything and everyone is a pawn in a game only she comprehends.   The novel also focuses on small scenes while allowing the greater historical events to fall into place as the stage in which their story plays out.  The greater events of the war, such as the Dunkirk evacuation or operation Sea Lion are mentioned merely as background, but a raid by British forces through supernatural means on the farm that acts as a base to the Übermensch takes up a good portion of the narrative.

Credible world-building is an essential factor in the creation of a believable fantasy novel, even more so in the case of an alternate history, and Tregillis manages to successfully interweave fantasy and science fiction into what would otherwise be categorized as an alternate history novel.  All the essential elements of alternate history are there, twisted into his vision of what might be if the element of fantasy is added.  Dunkirk ends quite differently due to the addition of the Übermensch and their far seer, while the invasion of England is forestalled not by the natural vagaries of the weather (as in reality) but by the mystical wall of nature created by the Eidolons.

I cannot stress enough how very much this is a novel structured around the examination of morality and the horrors that occur when ones moral code is compromised.  Will recoils in horror and devolves into madness as he realizes the evil he has unleashed into the world may be worse than the one they are fighting, while Marsh degenerates from a principled patriot into an obsessive who allows revenge to overcome his principles.  It becomes a matter of the ends justify the means to Marsh, while Will continually questions whether or not they have unduly compromised their humanity.

Bitter Seeds left me with a feeling of profound sadness. I allowed Ian Tregillis to create an empathy in me towards the majority of his characters (yes, even the Übermensch) and then watched them devolve into morally bankrupt shells of their former selves.  Tregillis also left me with an unrepentant desire to continue reading of their decline—or possible salvation—in the next book of the Milkweed triptych, The Coldest War.

B+

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The Court of the Air – Stephen Hunt

CourtOfTheAir“We’re the ghosts in the machine, Oliver, keeping the game straight and hearts pure.  The only thing they know about us is the name Kirkhill gave us – the Court of the Air; the highest bleeding court in the land.”

About five years ago, a title leaped out at me from the shelf as I walked through my local bookstore.  The Court of the Air by Stephen Hunt, described on the dust cover as, “A fantastical tale of high adventure, low-life rogues, and orphans on the run.”  Now I’m a sucker for both fantasy and adventure novels, especially those with a historical feel, and a quick read of the synopsis suggested that this novel could be all those things, with the added bonus of being Steampunk.  At the time, I set it back down, thinking to pick it up at a later date–and then promptly forgot it.  Flash forward a year and the same title once again leaped out at me while strolling through another bookshop.  It also leaped out in hardcover for an absolutely reasonable price.  So, I bought it, set it on the shelf with the intent to read, and there it sat until earlier this year.  When I finally got around to reading it, I realized that I’ve been missing out on the Steampunk equivalent of J. R. R. Tolkien or George R.R. Martin.  I also realize that if I missed out on this for six years, you might too, and we can’t have that.

So, synopsis please, and we’ll go from there. 

The Court of the Air is nominally the story of two orphans, one being the foundling Molly Templar, a street urchin left to the care of the Sungate workhouse in Middlesteel, capital of the nation-state of Jackals.  The other, one Oliver Brooks, is also an orphan after an Aerostat crash into the feymist (magical faerie mist is the only way I can describe it) that blankets parts of Jackals killed his parents and left him alone in the world except for his uncle Titus.  Life is hard for both Molly and Oliver.  She goes from job to job, the proceeds confiscated to pay for her care at the workhouse until she comes of age and finds a career, while he is ostracized by the community and forced to register with the worldsingers (a type of magician) every week to prove the latent mystical powers they suspect he has as a result of his time in the feymist have not manifested.  When everyone in Molly’s workhouse is slaughtered by a mysterious assassin, and Oliver’s uncle is murdered in his house and he subsequently framed for the crime, both go on the run and into a series of adventures that will eventually bring them and their stories together—and may possibly rip both the state of Jackals and literally their entire universe apart.  That is, unless they can find a way to stop it.

The Court of the Air is a novel of intrigue within intrigue, with many factions on the trail of the two orphans, some to protect them, others to stop them from fulfilling a destiny they aren’t even aware of.  It’s also a masterful blend of both Steampunk and something somewhat unique to the genre.  Sure, it was quite obvious in the opening pages that there would be the traditional Steampunk fare: Autonomous Steam Men, Aerostats (also known as Zeppelins), Pneumatic Buildings and Subterranean Cities, but what piqued my interest was the addition of magic.  Elements such as the Feymist (faerie) creatures, the Special Guard (those augmented by their exposure to the world beyond), Worldsingers (magicians who utilize the power of the earth in their arts), even the militia’s muskets relying on crystals grown for use as a sort of magical gunpowder, all add a mystical element to a genre that (I think) is not generally known for it.

I would be remiss at this point not to mention the Court of the Air itself, an organization whose existence is whispered amongst the people but rarely seen.  A shadowy league, influencing significant events from behind the scenes for their own altruistic–or nefarious–purposes.  A cabal to whose attention Oliver and Molly have unwittingly come.  

There are times in which The Court of the Air can be a tricky read.  Stephen Hunt has managed to create a universe with its own particular accent, especially with regards to the language.  The novel is chock full of Jackelian slang.  As an example, Crushers are police, Wordsingers are magicians, even the honorifics mister and missus become Samson and Damson.  Many times while reading The Court of the Air, I wished for a dictionary of Jackelian vernacular, but much like a Dickens novel, you get used to it, and it gives the novel a particularly strong air of authenticity.  Speaking of Charles Dickens, Hunt’s work has much the same feel, writing of orphans and workhouses, characters with a hidden destiny, a gentrified society of haves and have-nots, and all wrapped in wonderful prose of a decidedly Victorian flavor.

Hunt’s Universe is also very obviously a blending of English history and Steampunk fantasy, what with the Kingdom of Jackals being nominally a constitutional monarchy that has neutered the power of the King after a conflict reminiscent of the English Civil War.  Even the troops carry weapons that nod to their historical counterparts.  The New Pattern Army of Jackals recycles a variation of Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army, and its soldiers are loaded out with a musket called the Brown Jane, recalling the real life Brown Bess.  Calling the militia Redcoats simply completes the picture.  However, the automaton Kingdom of Mechancia and the evil shadows of the Wildcaotyl bring both a Steampunk and fantastical element to Jackals history.

Even the political ideologies of the major factions are patterned on historical examples.  Jackals is a social democracy where parliament rules with a king as figurehead only, while their enemy, the Commonshare of Quartershift is an obvious allusion to both the former Soviet Union and the ideology of Communism.  Within Jackals itself, there is a debate between the accepted state of society and the criminalized works of Benjamin Carl, a Marx-like figure whose treatise, “Community and the Commons,” sparked a failed revolution years earlier. 

This spectacular novel does take a while to become fully immersed in, what with the learning curve of both the colloquial slang and the sheer size of Hunt’s universe. In the final analysis, The Court of the Air is a novel that you don’t so much read as you do explore.  And that makes for a wonderful novel that deserves to be the standard to which other Steampunk novels be compared. 

 

A++

Mogworld-Yahtzee Croshaw

mogworld

“Me, I’m just here for a nice clean death, and Dub said he can give me one.  I don’t care who ends up running the world.  I just want it to stop being my problem.” ~Jim Bottomroach.

Life was so much simpler for Jim Bottomroach when he was dead.  Being undead, now that was a trick.  Killed during a skirmish between St. Gordon’s Magical College and the warrior schools of Stragonoff over a mystical stone that doesn’t exist, Jim was quite satisfied to join the stone in its nonexistence.  His two years of magical college hadn’t amounted to much.  Learning just three spells, the most useful—and by extension most entertaining—being one that would turn a rival into a rabbit (momentarily).  Just that would be enough to turn anyone off the magic business.  Jim had begun to seriously regret his career choice in the moments before a training war hammer knocked his soul right out of his body.

And that’s where it should have ended, all bright light and life reflection and then nothing.

However, things never turn out how they should, as Jim quickly learns (well, okay, 60 years later is not all that quick) when he’s resurrected by the necromancer Dreadgrave, who seeks to create an undead army to pillage the land around his impenetrable “Doom Fortress”.  Jim is quickly impressed into this undead army of the unwilling and put in charge of the rat pit, a rather unsavory fate–or savory, from the rat’s point of view–for any adventurers caught raiding Dreadgrave’s (impenetrable?) compound.  Distraught at his fate, Jim promptly jumps from the first tower he can climb.

Imagine his surprise to find that yes, he can die again, but no, it just won’t take.  Sure, his body is in worse shape, an eyeball here, a lung over there, but his consciousness is as intact as his body isn’t.  From then on, Jim’s goal is to search for a permanent means of death.  In the meantime, unlife goes on, until that fateful day a horde of angels descend from the sky and delete the Doom Fortress, Dreadgrave and all, yet somehow missing Jim and two others.  Meryl is an overly earnest young woman (she’s been dead as long as Jim, but she died young) and Thaddeus is a religious zealot who considers himself and the others to be a blasphemy against God.

It’s no small irony that only when they’ve stopped running and have a moment to think, Jim realizes his missed opportunity to end it all.  During the course of their flight, Jim discovers that while he returns to his body in a slightly more damaged state, for the past fifteen years, anyone else who dies is resurrected in a new body, a phenomenon people have come to call “The Infusion.”  Nobody dies permanently, not people, not cows, not blades of grass.  However, no births occur either.  So life goes on, perpetually and death doesn’t have the cache it used to.  Especially when you’re not granted a new body, and technically aren’t alive.

But fate isn’t done kicking Jim and his cohorts around just yet.  There’s a new Vicar in town, name of Barry, and he’s been endowed with almost God-like powers by the great God Si-Mon.  He’s also got it in his mind that Jim and his fellow undead are an aberration that Si-Mon requires be deleted to make the world right again.  At this point, Jim realizes that he’s not just fleeing aimlessly; he’s on a quest.  Defeat Barry and the great God Si-Mon by restoring the laws of nature, and by extension, find a way to die permanently.

Jim is helped along the way by a rogue adventurer/dolt by the name of Slippery John, who suggests his best bet to correct the natural order lies with the Magic Resistance, a group of sorcerers whose motivations parallel his own.  Especially the necromancers, who are finding it hard to get good help when no one stays dead.  Slippery John has his own motivation for tagging along, namely to find a cure for his beloved Drylda, who’s suffering from a malady known as the “Syndrome.”  The Syndrome only seems to attack adventurers, causing them to strike heroic poses and become obsessed with completing quests, right up until they become catatonic.  However, some might say Drylda’s catatonic state explains Slippery John’s “date rapey” interest in her.  So, add finding a cure for the Syndrome to Jim’s to-do list.

As a final obstacle to their quest, the adventurer’s guild has sicced a pair of stone cold murderers on their trail to find the Magic Resistance and stop their efforts.  Questing is good business, after all. Summing it up, Jim simply has to find the Magical Resistance, enlist them to help him change the laws of nature while dodging the attentions of the Adventurer’s Guild and simultaneously find a cure for the Syndrome.  If he weren’t already dead, I’m sure Jim would wish he was.

One other thing—every time Jim dies, he sees words in the air, disturbing words that make him question existence, or what he thinks it is.  Once he finally realizes what’s going on, what existence really is, that’s when the book really pays off.  It’s also a spoiler I’m not willing to reveal.  You’ll figure it out, especially if you figure out what MOGWORLD really means.

Reading MOGWORLD, I’m reminded of Tom Holt, Christopher Moore, Robert Asprin or maybe A. Lee Martinez, all authors who’ve put their stamp on the genre of comedic fantasyMogworld has the same quirky sense of humour and horror I found while reading any of the above authors, but especially Tom Holt, an author for whom reality is usually just a mask disguising what’s really going on.  Both hilarious and touching, Jim’s exploits to become “just” dead reveal a character that’s not nearly as nihilistic as he’d like you to think.

Just look at how he interacts with his fellow travellers.  Jim’s outward disdain for Meryl cannot mask his concern for her well-being.  Given several chances to leave her to her fate, he never actually does.  Time and again he suggests Thaddeus lay off all the “smite this” and “aberration that” but never kicks the former minister out of the party. Drylda and Slippery John really aren’t his problem, nor is finding a solution to the Infusion when he can simply let Barry delete him, but his desire to die permanently is always put behind the welfare of the world.  Jim chooses time and again to dodge the death he claims to welcome in his quest to fix the world.

Yahtzee Croshaw’s debut novel is hilariously entertaining.  I went into it thinking it was just going to be an interesting take on the sword and sorcery genre, focusing on a character that generally doesn’t get the limelight, just like Star Trek’s redshirts, or any super villain’s henchmen. You won’t be disappointed, especially if you’re a fan of the underdog, or find yourself rooting for the zombies at the movies.  If you’ve ever spent hours down at the arcade playing Gauntlet or long nights of misspent youth at D & D sleepovers, then this novel is for you.  If not, well, it’s still for you, because it’s a delightful look at the henchmen whose job it is to make the heroes look good.

As Jim put it himself, he doesn’t want to be a hero, just a protagonist.

A++

Monster Hunter Vendetta-Larry Correia

“When Monsters have nightmares, they’re dreaming about us.”  MHI Company Handbook

When we last met with Owen Zavasta Pitt, he was still reeling from the discovery that the world as he knew it was not the world as it is.  Monsters are real, the government has a black ops division of the F.B.I. that deals with them, and after a nasty run in with his manager at work (who was also a recent convert to lycanthropy), Pitt discovers that the life of an accountant may not be for him.   Monster Hunter-yes; middle management drone-no.

Fast forward a year, and we find Owen in a state of relative contentment.  He’s managed to save the World at least once, met (and courted) the girl of his dreams, and does a job that he loves for a salary that makes life quite comfortable.  Everything should be gravy, right?

Well, not so much.

You see, during the course of saving the world from the evil forces of another dimension, Owen attracted the attention of an elder God.  Apparently, destroying the artifact that would allow it to enter our dimension and slaying a multitude of its acolytes merits attention, as did the tactical nuclear weapon delivered into its posterior, courtesy of the U. S. government.  Owen’s not to blame for that, but someone’s got to take the fall, and the Old One (picture Lovecraft’s Cthulu) has decided Owen shall be the one.  Ironic that a bounty hunter should have his own bounty. 

Owen is blissfully unaware of  either the nuke or the bounty, contentedly hunting down chupacabras  and keeping the Mexican Riviera safe for both the locals and drunken Spring break kids.  So, it comes as a surprise to him when he gets a knock on the door, and then a subsequent knock on the head, from a mysterious Englishman, a shadowman of sorts, who remains incorporeal in the shade, but packs a real punch in the light of day.  Nor does it help that he’s brought a truckload of Zombies with him and released them on the resort’s party-goers.

Fast forward a couple of hours and poor Owen is stuck in a Mexican prison accused of multiple murder and disavowed by his own government.  If that’s not enough, while there, he gets a visit from his in-laws.  At the best of times that can be a pain in the neck, but when your in-laws are also Vampires of the nastiest sort, metaphor and reality can become mixed up.  Lucky for him though, they subscribe to the adage that, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” and have come to Owen with a proposition. 

The Englishman is a necromancer, and being Undead themselves, they don’t really want to become enthralled to him, hence, a truce and an alliance.  However, Owen has a problem being allied with the Undead, subscribing to the less known adage that, “the enemy of my enemy is sometimes also my enemy,” so that idea is a no go. 

You really don’t want to say “no” to Owen’s mother in law.  You. Really. Don’t.

Okay, Evil necromancer on one side, Evil Undead on the other.  Should be enough to deal with, right?

Aha, let’s not forget about the United States government.

Yep, that’s right, that same government that ticked off the Elder God.  Specifically, the Monster Control Bureau, a subsidiary of the Department of Justice and royal pain in the ass under the leadership of one Agent Myers, himself a former MHI alumni (with a grudge).  They’ve been following the movements of the shadowman and his cult organization, “The Sanctified Church of the Temporary Mortal Condition,” and now want to use Owen as bait to draw out their leader.  With that, the stage is set for a rollicking story full of non-stop action as Owen and his compatriots try to thwart the plans of the Death Cult, deal with a government agency that would rather see them disbanded, and as a byproduct of stopping the shadowman, keep him alive. 

 There are a lot of things to love in a Correia novel.  His writing is both witty and so fast paced that you don’t want to put the book down for any reason while you’re reading it, and feel a sense of dissatisfaction when you get to the end and realize it’s over.  His take on the supernatural is both quirky and refreshing, taking accepted mythology and turning it on its head.  In the first novel, we’re introduced to the Trailer Park Elves; this time around, it’s a gang of garden Gnomes.  And I do mean, “Gang.”  (If those THUG LIFE tats don’t tip it off, the sawed off shotguns and turf wars will.)  Fans of his first novel also get several questions answered, such as:

  • What’s the deal with Agent Franks? (and really, shame on me for not figuring it out earlier)
  • Why the animosity between Agent Myers and Earl Harbinger, and what does it have to do with one Martin Hood?
  • What’s the reason for Owen’s dad training him from birth to be a survivalist?
  • Who is Mr. Trash Bags, anyway?

Honestly, the Monster Hunter series reminds me a lot of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, with Owen playing a role very similar to Harry Dresden, the difference being that while Owen is a bounty hunter, Harry is a detective.   Both series are thoroughly enjoyable and a great addition to the genre.  It’s going to kill me to wait until July of this year for the release of the third book of the series, Monster Hunter AlphaIn the meantime, if you’d like to keep abreast of Larry’s writing projects (and other interesting stuff), he maintains a blog at Monster Hunter Nation that you can check out.

(p.s. Want to read about the Trailer Park Elve’s?  Larry’s got a nice little story about them over at Baen Books)