BOOK REVIEW: Bitter Seeds

Posted on September 25, 2012


first posted at

Bitter Seeds

Bitter Seeds
Ian Tregillis
Milkweed Triptych 2



The year is 1939. Raybould Marsh and other members of British Intelligence have gathered to watch a damaged reel of film in a darkened room. It appears to show German troops walking through walls, bursting into flames and hurling tanks into the air from afar. If the British are to believe their eyes, a twisted Nazi scientist has been endowing German troops with unnatural, unstoppable powers. And Raybould will be forced to resort to dark methods to hold the impending invasion at bay. But dealing with the occult exacts a price. And that price must be paid in blood.


Alternative history is about positing a ‘what if’ scenario where history as we may know it is re-written. Bitter Seeds, the first in the Milkweed Triptych trilogy, suggests a very different World War Two, at least as far as Germany and Britain are concerned.

Stories about Nazi Germany coming up with some sort of weird or wonderful new technology or even magic to change the path of World War Two are not new. The challenge therefore for Tregillis was to make this fresh enough to maintain interest. This he easily achieves.

In Bitter Seeds we see the battle between science and dark magic. There is little I can really say without throwing in spoilers all over the place. What I particularly liked about the magic construct used in the story is that it does not come without a price. Nor does it appear in a Harry Potter-esque fashion that it just happens because it just happens. Matters become increasingly grim and quite dark through this use of Enochian magic.

I noted in a review by Andrew J McKiernan over at Thirteen O’Clock, a problem with the use of ‘Enochian’ as the magical construct used by the Brits. Andrew has existing knowledge of this and as such he had concerns about the apparent lack of research by Tregillis in this respect. But if you are like me and know nothing about the Enochian (other than the name making me think of Enoch Powell,) then any such shortcomings would not be apparent.

Like pretty well any good story, the central theme becomes the people and how they are relating to increasingly brutal circumstances. We see some frightful decisions being made due to the needs of the time and circumstances, in pursuit of a greater good. Some things go wrong – terribly wrong.  For my liking at least, I found the character of occultist Will Beauclerk to be the best presented, most rounded character, possibly because of the degree of distress he was going through at the heart of these dark events.

“It was here in this room almost exactly a year ago where Marsh had severed Will’s finger. It was here where Will had pleaded with him to do so. Here Milkweed had repelled an invasion, destroyed a fleet. Today the air tasted like the stones at the bottom of a centuries-old well. The bones of the earth steeped in tainted water and the shells of dead snails.”

The Orbit range of titles often includes interviews with authors. The interview with Tregillis at the rear of the book is quite interesting, not least in how he describes the germ of the idea coming after reading about a WW2 Allied project for building ships out of ice – truth can be stranger than fiction, even though the ice ships do not make it into this trilogy.

I found this a quite gripping read which passed my ultimate test of whether or not I want to read more – I most certainly do!

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