Bitter Seeds: a review
First things first: this is not an Alisa book (WW2 references and events), nor is it a Tansy book (there are children, and babies, and things are not always nice).
This is not, actually, what I would immediately think of as an Alex book, either. I don’t tend to go in for WW2 alternative histories. I don’t object to them, but I don’t have the fascination for Nazis that still seems to occur in Western culture. (Seriously, what is WITH that? Can’t we move on?) I also don’t have the deep understanding of WW2 tactics and dramatis personae that enables me to pick the subtle alterations that can be made. Nonetheless, I got it for review, and the front cover phrase – “An unnatural power. An unstoppable force” – was intriguing, as was Cory Doctorow’s description of it as “Mad English warlocks battling twisted Nazi psychics.”
That is, indeed, the premise of the plot. A German scientist (I use the term in its broadest, amoral sense) has been experimenting with the aim of creating – you guessed it – superhumans. The English find out about it, or bits of it anyway, and in response start trying to figure out what their defence can possibly be. The answer is… not very nice. There’s an element of ‘doing wrong in order to do good’ about a lot of the English response, which causes some of the characters some angst but occasionally didn’t seem to worry them nearly as much as it ought. My reaction to this vacillated. On the one hand, a bit more hand-wringing (or more effective equivalent) would have increased the humanity of the characters; on the other hand, I fully understand that war can and does change perception and attitude, and perhaps what Tregillis is being is brutally realistic. Whichever, it often makes for somewhat unpleasant reading.
The story begins with three significant events in 1920, then jumps to 1939 and continues on to 1941. The 1920 prologue introduces three significant characters and their assorted others. Two children arrive at a deserted German farm (spooky); a group of children steal from a backyard vegetable garden and their ringleader gets rather more than he expects from the garden’s owner (amusing); and the very young scion of a noble family learns rather more than he wants about his odd grandfather (spooky, again). The German children, of course, are subjects for the German doctor’s experiments and – slight spoiler? – both live to become agents in service of the doctor and his patron, Himmler. The young ringleader is taken under the gardener’s wing and joins the Royal Navy and then the Secret Intelligence Service (you know James Bond started off in the navy, right?), and is the one who starts cracking the nut that is the weird German actions. And the other gentleman… well, that would be a spoiler, so I won’t explain him. But he definitely crops up again. Of these characters it is fair to say that none are especially loveable, or even likeable, most of the time. The English secret agent, Marsh, is initially the most approachable, but that doesn’t last. They each have moments where sympathy is definitely appropriate, but half the time they’d go and do something or say something that, if not actively making me dislike them, certainly made me ambivalent. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in a character, but it certainly made the reading experience more wearisome than others.
The plot basically follows the development of WW2, with added supernatural/psychic/weird elements that naturally alter how some things pan out. I think Tregillis has thought out the repercussions of these new weapons quite well, but then I’m no military historian so my approval is definitely suspect. As with any war, things get more and more unpleasant as time goes on. This is not a nice novel. People get hurt, and not always the right people.
Bitter Seeds is well written and a very examination of the way psychic weapons could alter warfare. It’s also a fairly bleak look at how people react under stress. It’s very well written – engaging, well paced, and with well-timed shifts between characters. All of that said, I don’t see myself seeking out the sequel. I don’t think I could handle the fact that I am quite sure the story can only get bleaker before it maybe, possibly, gets brighter – and sometimes the brighter doesn’t entirely make up for the bleak. So, enjoyable, but not really my sort of thing after all.
You can buy Bitter Seeds at Fishpond.
Etiquette and Espionage: a review
“Young ladies ought to be seen and not heard, except when they’re climbing over dirigibles or looking for secret information. Unless the being seen bit is part of a misdirection.”
This advice pretty much sums up what Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality is all about. They learn music and etiquette, along with eyelash-fluttering and the language of parasols, but all of it goes into the service of turning out young ladies who are capable of stealing, finding, maiming, subverting or even killing anything or anyone as required. With decorum, modesty, and a poise that befits their position. Woe betide any stain on a petticoat hem.
Gail Carriger has returned to the world she created in the Alexia Tarabotti (two of which I’ve reviewed here), although this appears – from various internal hints – to be set before Alexia’s thrilling adventures into how to dress to deal with the supernatural. This means that this is a decidedly other version of Victorian England; one in which mechanical servants are completely de rigeur, as is having both a werewolf and a vampire on the faculty of said Finishing School. There are trains but there are also dirigibles; there is no telegraph, but it’s ok – there’s still lots of fashion.
For fans of Carriger’s previous work, I should mention some of the differences, the foremost being in the main character. Sophronia is fourteen, and therefore – despite a propensity towards precociousness – very different in outlook from the adult Alexia. Attached to this is that Sophronia is a student, and therefore at least nominally restricted in her movements, unlike Alexia.And, while Alexia’s adventures revolve around the supernatural because of her unusual preternatural status, the supernatural is just there for Sophronia – to be admired or scared of occasionally, but not intersecting with her everyday life in much of a way (although Captain Niall is a spunk). None of these comments are intended to be in any way a complaint about this new novel; it’s just good to clear the air for fans of the previous work.
So, Sophronia. Imagine getting settled with that for a first name. She’s the youngest daughter but somewhere-in-the-middle child of the Temminnick household, consistently getting into trouble and generally causing small-to-medium mayhem (landing a trifle on a lady’s head doesn’t quite count as major mayhem, since said lady was a duchess or anything). This mayhem is naturally upsetting to her mother, mostly because it means that Sophronia is not acting like a lady and generally ends up looking very unlike a lady (custard is unbecoming). Thus, to finishing school, much to her sister Petunia’s relief (… I think I would rather Sophronia as my name) and Sophronia’s dismay. Fortunately, the journey to the school itself contains adventure, and Sophronia begins to suspect that this school may not be quite what she was expecting. And then she reaches the school itself, and the very buildings indicate that this is quite something else.
The plot revolves around good old fashioned intrigue amongst students and staff, as well as an external threat. As with any good school-based novel there’s a deal of sussing-out the good eggs from the bad, figuring out which teachers can be manipulated in which ways, and poking at the edges of the rules to see which break and which bend. The first is just complex enough to be interesting, even amongst Sophronia’s group of ‘debuts’ (first-years) – there’s only 6. The second is complicated by the fact that the staff are naturally quite good at the things they teach – diversion, for example, and manipulation, and generally devious behaviour. And the third – well, that’s where the fun lies, isn’t it?
The Alexia novels have been referred to as ‘bustlepunk’, and it’s fair to say that you have to have a genuine fascination with, or high tolerance for, descriptions of clothing, toilette in general, and eating to really enjoy those novels. The same applies here, although it’s laid on a little less thick – we’re mostly dealing with young teenaged girls after all, with little interaction with outside society (which doesn’t mean they can get away with not having their hair and nails perfect, nor that they can ever be seen less than fully clothed (inc several petticoats)). Sophronia is an interesting perspective to share, in this case, because her previous attitude was definitely one of scowling at the notion of ‘ladylike’. This changes over time, but the reasons for her change in attitude are also shown – and it’s not that catching a husband suddenly assumes an enormous significance for her. This slight undercutting of the social expectations of a Victorian lady was nice to see.
My one complaint, and fortunately it does not crop up very often, is something that also bugged me in a couple of the Alexia novels, and that’s the attitude towards class. Just occasionally there are comments about those not in the rarified ranks of quail-tay. Usually those comments come from unpleasant characters, but – unlike the comments on social expectations – they are not undercut to show the unpleasant snobbery inherent in such words. It’s somewhat mollified by Sophronia’s unconventional friendship with some Downstairs types, who – glory! – actually manage to be quite useful, but still… the comments rankled.
Overall, this is a rocking, enjoyable novel. Steampunk for the sake of the plot, not the aesthetic; spunky female lead (this definitely passes the Bechdel test); and a satisfactorily intriguing plot. Yes I am looking forward to the sequel… which, given this has only just come out, is something of a problem for me.
You can get Etiquette and Espionage from Fishpond.