Bitter Seeds – Ian Tregillis

About the Book

Raybould Marsh is a British secret agent in the early days of the Second World War. During a mission back in the Spanish Civil War, he saw something strange: a German woman with wires going into her head. She looked at him as if she knew him. When the Nazis start running missions with people who have unnatural abilities – a woman who can turn invisible, a man who can walk through walls, and the woman from Spain who can use her knowledge of the future to twist the present – Marsh is the man who gets to handle the problem. He rallies the secret warlocks of Britain to hold the impending invasion at bay. But magic always exacts a price. Eventually, the sacrifice necessary to defeat the enemy will be as terrible as the outright loss. 
I don’t really know how to even start with this one. I wasn’t going to read Bitter Seeds. I read the basic premise about Nazi superhumans and warlocks in England and thought “pullleeeeze.” Then, I read some rave reviews for it and figured that I would be doing a disservice if I didn’t pick it up. I read having set myself up to hate it.
Now that it’s over, I honestly don’t even know how to review it.
World War II is probably one of the most written about historical events of all time. The superhuman spin on it isn’t new. One of the main reasons I didn’t want to read this book was because I thought Tregillis would be trying really hard to be new with old ideas and thus, the book might come off as stale. Well, that didn’t happen.
And I also think one of the reasons I’m having such a hard time narrowing down this book for a quality review is because there are so many different factors at play in it. Tregillis fills the pages with literary prose that is commonly associated with high quality fiction. The historical events are so well researched, Bitter Seeds could easily interest historical readers; and the myriad of superhuman and paranormal at its core will keep speculative fiction fans hooked with baited breath.
How the hell am I supposed to review something like that?
Tregillis floods the pages of Bitter Seeds with an intricate, fast paced plot and stunningly flawed, believable peoples who can’t help but capture the readers interest. Bitter Seeds takes the reader on a journey through important protagonists on both sides of the infamous conflict. Tregillis should be rewarded for allowing the reader to become sympathetic with characters on both sides of the line. He keeps his cast minimal and easy to follow without dropping in unnecessary viewpoints or flooding the pages with more people than any reader could possibly keep track of. This also allows the reader to become far more emotionally involved and interested in the characters you are presented with. The small, tight cast seemed to help Tregillis to flesh out his characters to an incredible extent.
If there is one flaw with the book, it’s the fact that sometimes Marsh can be almost predictable with his actions and overarching desires and some readers might find that the characters do fall flat at times. There were also points in the book where, despite the fantastic writing and world building, the overall narration did seem to falter slightly where there may be slight plot hiccups. This, however, was easy for me to overlook though other readers might find it to be a larger issue than I found it to be. Hey, not every book can please every reader.
The writing is, simply put, stunning. Tregillis brings fine quality literary prose into the speculative fiction genre in a big way while keeping the flowery, unnecessary descriptions that seem to flood so many books to an absolute minimum. Everything you read is necessary for the book. It’s easy to get lost in the pages, the world, the conflict and people. The whole book simply shines with the quality of writing.
Tregillis packs quite a bit into the paltry 350 plus pages making every detail important for the reader to hang onto and also serving to prove that quality is often times more important than quantity. There are no incredibly happy endings and nicely tied up plots. However, from my understanding this is actually the first book in a trilogy (The Milkweed Triptych). The ending will leave the reader hanging on with baited breath to see what the genius of Ian Tregillis can come up with next. Never fear, it doesn’t necessarily end on a cliffhanger, it just leaves plenty of open ended questions. 
Though the initial plot might seem cheesy, Bitter Seeds excels at bringing the impossible to life. It is quite amazing to see how Tregillis can draw thought provoking parallels between events happening on both sides of the World War II line, and while most of the most notable and horrific events are hinted at rather than described, it will still chill the blood of the reader. The book also serves as an interesting exploration of war itself.
It should be noted, though I think it’s pretty common sense, that World War II was a very dark war and this book is, therefore, a very dark book. If you aren’t a fan of books that don’t end in a most satisfying light or dark plots in general, I’d suggest you avoid picking this one up.
Bitter Seeds is an incredible debut that Tregillis should be very noted for. It blends a hodgepodge of literary genius, horror, paranormal and history with some amazing dark tones and incredibly believable, tragically flawed characters. While this book may seem to be a bit of everything, it never strays far from it’s speculative fiction core. This is easily one of the most impressive debut works I’ve read.
5/5 stars

11 Responses

  • Benjamin

    Good review! I liked this book quite a bit for all the reasons you mentioned. My biggest gripe though was that Gretel didn't seem threatening enough given her ability. On the other hand, Tregillis does has two more books to flesh that out.

  • Liviu

    Great review!

    There is an interview with the author where he touches on how difficult it was to write a credible Gretel when basically she knows in advance what the author knows 🙂

    Could not agree more about how good the novel was, though for me The Last Page is still the #1 debut of 2010 because it is more inventive, but this one is very close at #2

  • Sarah

    Thanks for the compliments on the review, guys 🙂 I appreciate them!

    Liviu, I'll have to read that interview, it sounds really REALLY interesting. I haven't read "The Last Page" but I'm going to go put it on hold at the library. Now it's a "must read."

  • Gem

    Oh I like the sound of this! I would have avoided the book for the same reasons as you Sarah. I tend to avoid WW II novels let alone adding a supernatural Nazi element. But I will definitely add this to my wish list, especially because there is no happy ending. Dark fiction should remain dark, no need to tack on a happy ending just for the sake of it! Will this be a possible nominee for the Indie Book Awards?

  • Sarah

    Gem, I am most certainly nominating it!

  • Mark Timmony

    I had to laugh – your response to the blurb is exactly like mine.

    I applaud your fortitude in soldiering ahead and reading the book, I just don't have the patience. Mind you I am pretty sure you read a lot faster than I anyway. 😀

  • ediFanoB

    Great review! I expect the delivery of my paperback copy in March 2011 🙂 After reading your review I'm glad that I ordered the book. WW II was a dark war but it was also a time which still influence our live. I read a lot about WW II since my youth. Bitter Seeds opens a new chapter.

    You really have a knack for writing reviews. The more reviews by you I read the worse I find my own reviews.
    It seems I have to work on it and I need to find a way to recharge my creativity batteries…

  • Sarah

    Wow, that's quite a compliment. I always think my reviews are pretty paltry because I have zero patience for editing. I re-read them all and find about a million mistakes, or things I could have said better or whatever.

    WWII is really interesting to me, but it's dark, very dark and some people could easily be disturbed by that, but it's history and I think it's important to evaluate history. Anyway, I'll be interested to see how you enjoy this book when you get it.

    Thanks again for the compliments. 🙂

  • qtera

    I just sent your wonderful and well written review to Ian. I know it will make him smile.

  • Sarah

    qtera, wow, thanks!! That's awesome. I hope he enjoys it!

  • Mark Timmony

    I met Ian today – he's a lovely guy.

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