Ian Tregillis’ Bitter Seeds (2010) is a brilliant cross-genre mashup, mixing liberal doses of macabre dark fantasy, fascinating World War II alternate history, comic book action, and suspenseful espionage. It opens in 1939 in Spain, where the Germans are field-testing an elite unit of secret, superpowered soldiers in the civil war, in preparation for their own offensives. But the unit doesn’t remain entirely secret: British spy Raybould Marsh returns to England with alarming evidence of the unit’s existence. Bringing in his friend Will Beauclerk, who knows a thing or two about mysterious magic, Marsh helps to form Milkweed, British intelligence’s answer to the threat.
What follows is a lively, imaginative, and utterly engrossing reimagining of World War II, pitting ruthless Frankenstein mutants of the Nazi war machine against Britain’s desperate warlock defense. Through the eyes of his protagonists — Marsh and Will for the British, and one of his super-soldiers, Klaus, for the Germans — Tregillis provides a ground’s eye view of the war, adroitly blending personal stories with the bigger picture of the conflict. Much of the alternate history I’ve read set during World War II gets overly obsessed with period minutiae, but that’s not a problem here; plenty of convincing detail is provided, but not at the expense of a bristling pace. A uniquely multifaceted concoction, Bitter Seeds succeeds as a spy novel, a war novel, a dark fantasy novel, and an alternate history novel all at the same time, both a cracking good adventure and a sober examination of the difficult, cost-benefit decisions of war. A highly impressive debut; very anxious for the sequels!