Imagine, if you will, that the Nazis not only were able to take strides toward their idea of the Übermensch, but were wildly successful at it to the point they created literal super-men and women with powers beyond normal humanity. How would you combat that? How would that have been used in World War II or changed the course of the conflict? How would their existence impact a person’s idea of what it is to be human, how would fighting that impact your own humanity? These are the questions asked in Bitter Seeds, an alternative history/sci-fi novel by Ian Tregillis.
Set in the span between the 1920’s and the 1940’s, Bitter Seeds addresses all of those questions. BS follows four characters in particular, Marsh and Will of the English and Klaus and Gretel, twin siblings, of the Nazis. The twins are part of the Reichsbehorde, a human augmentation experiment where wires are threaded through the brain and through which a current is passed in order to stimulate latent powers the patient/victim possesses. This experiment has produced a number of successes, from Klaus and Gretel, who can turn intangible and tell the future respectively, to gifting others with flight, telekinesis, pyrokinesis, the ability to turn invisible, etc. Of course, because they are Nazis the process itself is horrific, involving mutilation, constant experimentation, and torture to bring about these abilities (for instance, the person who can become intangible was put inside a device that basically crushed him until his mind expanded to allow him to escape through his gift).
Across the channel, on the side of English, there are the warlocks. Blood magic practitioners, warlocks speak Enochian, the primal ur-language that comes before all other language. They use this language, along with various forms of sacrifice, to communicate with the Eidolons, beings that exist outside of reality (or are reality, depending on how you look at it), vast intelligences who hate humanity. Despite their hatred for our species, the Eidolons can be negotiated with to work what would be magic in any other sense by changing reality in specific ways depending on the request and the price paid by the warlock. Because modern language, even hearing modern language, negatively impacts the ability to learn Enochian, the warlock-practice is usually passed down through family lines, starting at an early age. Will is one such warlock, albeit reluctantly, as well as being gentry.
And then there is Marsh. Marsh is a completely normal, maybe slightly more than average human being. He works for Stephenson, a man who took Marsh as his ward after World War I, who in turn works for the British government as the head of what will become MI6. Marsh recruits Will into the war effort once the existence of the Gotterelektrongruppe (roughly translated, if my German is at all accurate, the Group of the God Electron).
These two supernatural groups, the warlocks and the Gotterelektrongruppe, are used to explain events that happen in our WWII, such as when the Gotterelektrongruppe helps the Germans get past the Maginot Line by essentially carving a road through the French forest using a mixture of pyrokinesis and explosive telekinesis. It is Gretel’s ability that causes the German Army and Navy to have such impressive early successes as she tells the Nazi strategists what to do and where to strike. In BS the Germans are even more successful than they were in reality, completely destroying the RAF and totally isolating the UK by sea; particularly noteworthy, the dramatic rescue attempt at Dunkirk, in this book, is completely eliminated and the British army erradicated.
To say that the war does not go well for the British would be an understatement. Germany pretty much conquers all of the rest of Europe and northern Africa, only threatened by Russia to the far east. The US never gets involved in the war because Germany, if I remember correctly, never feels the need to reach out to Japan, so Pearl Harbor doesn’t happen and the American government, despite lobbying from FDR, refuses to get involved in a European war. It is only with the help of the warlocks that invasion of England and the UK is held at bay when the Eidolons intercede in making the Channel pretty much un-crossable by boat by brewing up a constant, terrible storm. However, the cost of such protection is high, requiring not just blood, but lives, hundreds of lives, often taken in horrible fashions. And with each negotiation the price goes up.
Bitter Seeds, by examining the Gotterelektrongruppe and the warlocks, asks what it is to be human. The Gotterelektrongruppe’s humanity is shown by what they’ve lost, the impact and consequences of what has been done to them illustrated in how they interact with each other, their expressed points of view, and what they are capable of. While it could be argued that they are a greater expression of what humanity could be, due to their powers, they are also deeply flawed individuals because of how their “greatness” was achieved; Klaus, for instance, is claustrophobic, Reinhardt (the pryokinetic) is an abusive necrophiliac, and all of them, in a variety of ways, are damaged.
Similarly, the warlock’s paying of the blood price the Eidolons demand also shows an illustration of broken humanity. Will, as far as is portrayed in the book, is the only warlock who seems to have any reservations for what they do, expressing constant remorse and seeking to numb his guilt in drugs and alcohol. By seeing his downward slide into addiction and self-harm, it contrasts how inhuman the other warlocks are by their association with and acceptance of the Eidolons; arguably, the true price of the Eidolons influence isn’t necessarily the harm the warlocks cause, but the loss of their human empathy and sense of guilt.
Marsh, the only one who is arguably “completely” human, does not escape the examination of what it is to be human. He goes slightly mad when he suffers a terrible loss during a blitz and becomes lost for a time in his work and the idea of revenge, which causes harm to himself, his marriage, and to others when his obsession drives him to make several bad decisions. By seeing his all-too-human reactions to guilt and hate, it further illustrates the lack of humanity in the other two groups
I read Bitter Seeds while on the JoCoCruiseCrazy back in February and it was a decidedly “okay” book. It neither bored me to tears nor it rocked my world and it’s pretty decent as far as alternate history goes. The descriptions are vivid and the action compelling, I found the parts I enjoyed most were the character interactions between Will and Marsh and the look inside each head, exploring the idea of “what is humanity?” Also, I did enjoy some of the scenes with the Eidolons.
I think the parts that I found bothersome with this book were the unfinished plot hooks that were left in place for things to happen in the sequel. I understand that a sequel needs to build off of what came before but it always annoys me when an author does it in such a way where novel one in the series has dangling threads, yet still tells a complete story. It makes those hooks feel like a sloppy detail that was over-looked, even though it was intentionally done.
If you’re into alternate history as a genre, and you’re into sci-fi, you’d probably enjoy this book.