I waited a bit so I could read and cover all three of these books in one fell swoop – Ian Tregillis‘s Milkweed Triptych – Bitter Seeds, The Coldest War and Necessary Evil.
The overall story arc takes place in a forked alternate history starting in the 1930s, and ending in the 1960s by the end of the third book.
Though some one line blurbs pitch the trilogy as “British wizards vs. Nazi superman”, that’s a bit simplistic, and misleading. The books themselves also address this too, quite early on, so lets just lay down the the overarching premise.
The nazis have enabled humans to control fire, cold, be invisible and other abilities via their willpower by hardwiring their brains with electrodes drilled into their skulls, hooked up to special batteries, leaving them all with trailing wires hanging from their heads. This is the work of scientist Von Westarp, who as the series opens, is experimenting on orphans.
Upon discovering this, the British have looked to a group of old and grizzled warlocks as their own secret weapons. To be straight though, this is not a Marvel supervillain vs. Gandalf story. The warlocks do not perform magic as such, more they negotiate with supernatural entities called Eidolons for actions like freezing swathes of Europe, or providing a fog curtain across the English channel, all of which have a price. These negotiations are conducted in the allegedly ancient language of Enochian, and Tregillis’s descriptions of these characters are superb in places.
Boiled down, the two main character protagonists (or perhaps that should be antagonists) are Raybould Marsh, a British spy, and Gretel, a product of a Nazi medical experiment who is a kind of clairvoyant. Of the supporting characters there is Will, a reluctant well-to-do junior warlock, and Klaus, Gretel’s brother. It can be argued these characters are more three dimensional than the main two, struggling with decisions somewhat made for them. Will’s dislike of the blood prices he exacts to ‘pay’ the Eidolons grates on him, and drives him to breakdowns and swings in character. Klaus lives in his sister’s shadow for decades, trying to extract himself and finally know himself and make his own decisions and more than his sister embodies the result of living when someone can see your future.
Whilst Klaus’s ability is to become ghostlike and pass through solid objects, Gretel is able to see timelines and where decisions may lead. These abilities cease when the user’s battery runs low, as it amplifies their willpower, so batteries become a strategic tool in the books. The question you find yourself asking by the second book, is that unlike her peers, does Gretel even need the battery? These peers include the sadastic Reinhardt, with his ability to incinerate things, to the mentally crippled Kammler who drools, and must be directed by a handler, whilst his kinetic powers flatten any object.
I should say that it appeared to me that Tregillis hates Marsh – all the worst things in the world happen to him, and he almost dumbly plods on, as just a point of anger, driving the story. He’s not the only tragic character – most of the characters are tragic, such as poor Heike, another product of the Nazi Dr. Westarp’s experiments who is essentially talked into suicide, before her corpse is then the victim of another characters twisted affections.
The first book essentially covers the war, then moves forwards twenty years to a Cold War where the Soviets have been reverse engineering Von Westarp’s work, and then the final showdown in the UK. The title of the final book, “Necessary Evil”, is interesting in that it’s difficult to believe which of the evils was actually necessary, as they all seem like more of an excuse.
It’s a well written set of books, which seems was always intended to be a trilogy, as setups you don’t even notice in the first book pay off in the last. It does feel planned and structured, over the retcon some writers can be forced to do over such a long arc. This is vital though to build belief in Gretel’s ability to divine futures and steer events down the one line she needs. Tregillis outright poses one such line in Gretel having Heike kill herself so the Soviets would put her brain in a jar for study, and that that same jar would be kept in the same facility she is held in, years in the future, so that she can make use of that jar. It’s a combination of talent, foresight and sheer cruelty.
Each book is standalone to some extent, but I really can’t imagine enjoying any of them outside of the trilogy; it truly is a triptych – a whole divided into three parts.
The final book wraps up most of the loose ends and finally addresses the very physical, sexual tension which builds for three books between Gretel and Reybould. There’s more chemistry between those two characters than between Reybould and his own wife, trapped between his hate, and Gretels fear and detachment.
In summary I would say the books are definitely worth a read, and in case you’re wondering, it is a setup where it’s not clear who the ‘good’ side are, and perhaps none of them are – both sides ruin innocence and in a fantastical universe show the way wars make people do deals rational people would never entertain. There are some parts of the ending which I would liked to have been more decisive, but overall, after the three book journey, it does satisfy, and you realise the kind of willpower Gretel possesses not just because of her powers, but as a person, and how far that can drive Reybould to extraordinary lengths.