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Bitter Seeds    by Ian Tregillis order for
Bitter Seeds
by Ian Tregillis
Order:  USA  Can
Tor, 2010 (2010)
Hardcover, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

In Bitter Seeds, Ian Tregillis revisits World War II to show what might have happened if the Nazis and the English government each employed different kinds of dark magic, intent on winning at all costs.

We learn of Herr Doktor von Westarp experimenting on orphaned children, including gypsy twins Klaus and Gretel, to form the Reichsbehorde. The few survivors develop talents, powered by batteries with leads going into their skulls - abilities that can be used to do great damage to enemies of the Reich. Gretel has visions of the future and uses them to manipulate events - but to what ultimate purpose? On the Allied side, Great War spymaster John Stephenson mentors a promising boy, Raybould Marsh, who robs his garden. And the Duke of Aelred indoctrinates his second son, William, into an ancient tradition.

Fast forward to 1939 Spain, where Secret Intelligence Agent Ray Marsh observes an unnatural attack that reduces an informant to ash in instants. On his return, Marsh is tasked with recruiting specialists to the Allied cause, and his old university friend, Lord William Beauclerk immediately comes to mind. Meeting in a pub, they encounter - and Ray soon marries - the lovely Liv Turnbull. They have a baby girl, Agnes. Will brings English warlocks (of whom his grandfather was one) into the fray. They communicate with demonic Eidolons, who are able to influence events, but demand terrible sacrifices in return.

Gretel manipulates her way to England, into captivity and out of it again. She meets a scarred stranger burdened by the same foreknowledge - and madness - that affects her, before returning to the fold of the Reichsbehorde - but why the escapade? The war progresses and Gretel's influence grows - but again we wonder why she does certain things, including insisting on the destruction of a small English village. This tragedy inspires Ray to find a way to use the Eidolons as a 'private Tube system' for a raid on France. It's an unmitigated disaster that leads to his dismissal from the intelligence service.

As this first book ends, Ray finally understands that 'von Westarp had created a precognitive sociopath', who has now joined the Soviets. The English begin their own experiments on war orphans. And Will desperately fears the outcome of a promise he made to the Eidolons. George R. R. Martin, grandmaster of dark fantasy, is right in calling Ian Tregillis 'A major talent'. His damaged Gretel steals the show in Bitter Seeds, a brilliant and engrossing debut that leaves the readers hungry for more.

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