This novella was sent to me by the publisher, Tor.com, at no cost. It will be published on August 21.
As an Australian, I’m sure I only picked up the surface detail of what Clark is doing here in his alternative history of America. That was enough, though, to be both utterly intrigued by the world he’s imagined and to follow this awesome story that I really hope everyone goes out and grabs.
This is alternative history in two senses. One is that there’s airships and some other tech that doesn’t fit with what the nineteenth century actually had; a variation on steampunk I guess. The other is that, partly because of this technology, things went somewhat differently in Haiti after and during the slave revolt there, and when Napoleon tried to reimpose slavery; and, possibly connected to this although that’s unclear, things are also different in the USA: like it’s not the USA. This is post-Civil War, but instead of reconstruction, Confederates and the Union are still separate. Oh, and New Orleans is neutral, and basically seems to be operating as its own city-state.
There’s a lot going on here, and all of that is just background to understanding why our protagonist, Creeper, is trying to find someone to pass along some information to, and then ends up in an unexpected adventure.
This is a beautifully written novella, both fast-paced and with complex enough characters that I cared about them. Creeper is awesome, there are seriously odd nuns (I REALLY want a story about them please and thank you), and the captain of an airship who takes zero nonsense from anyone. Plus a scientist with dangerous knowledge in his head and… yeh, you get the picture. The characters are a multitude of colours and ethnicities and nationalities, as befits New Orleans as a neutral and open port; there’s really interesting discussion about old, African gods being brought to this new world, and what power they might have. This is alternative history that really works: it makes sense (see caveat above re: me and American history), and it challenges modern conservative white notions of what alternative history is; it also just straight-out challenges boring old racism pretty much just by its existence.
I loved it a lot and would be very happy to read more in this world.
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.