Read this book: Bitter Seeds

Ian Tregillis’s alt history/sci-fi mashup scores big on imagination, even if many of his characters are flat.

bitter seeds 1

Aside from the supernatural/horror/sci-fi, another thing I’m a fan of in pop culture is alternative histories. The “what if” has always fascinated me, mainly because it lets the imagination run away.

In his book Bitter Seeds, Ian Tregillis combines not only sci-fi, but also horror, with alternative history. Add nazis, arguably one of the best villain groups of all time, to that mix and you’ve got a recipe for a great story.

bitter seeds 3The plot: in Germany, a mad scientist is creating his own band of supermen, soldiers capable of such things as turning invisible, starting fire, and predicting the future. As war looms between Germany and the rest of Europe, the British government forms a group called Milkweed to investigate these reports. Soon a covert battle ensues as the British group use warlocks to summon dark forces to battle the nazis.

It’s actually a complicated plot to explain in a few tight sentences. Our hero is Raybould Marsh, a pugnacious British secret agent who is sent to investigate the reports of these supermen. Soon he summons his college friend Will, a warlock initiated in a blood rite that allows him to communicate with beings called Eidolons. When you think of Eidolons, think Lovecraft. These mysterious beings are not kindly or benevolent. They see humans as no better than ants. They would gladly destroy us but they exist in a different plane, and can never pin us down. Blood helps them get closer. Tregillis doesn’t fully explain what the Eidolons are, but he doesn’t need to. My imagination filled the gaps just fine.

Meanwhile, the German team of superheroes is on the verge of falling apart. They were Bitter-Seeds 2created when they were just children, bought by a scientist who experimented on them (horribly, one would assume, judging from the body count) until he had his team in place. They wear batteries that are hooked to wires embedded in their skulls, which allows them to access their superpowers. This is one of Tregillis’s strengths — he employs, simple, believable technology suited for the era. Think steampunk circa 1930s.

The German story centers on two characters: Klaus, who can dematerialize and move through walls, and his sister Gretel, an enigmatic sociopath who knows the future (though she rarely reveals it). Gretel is perhaps the most compelling character. Why? She is always a mystery, always unpredictable, and always uncontrolled. She’s fascinating to watch.

The breakdown. What was good about Bitter Seeds?

–The concept was fun. Who doesn’t love watching nazis get beat?

–As mentioned above. Gretel was by far my favorite character, though Will, the aristocratic warlock, was a close second. Tregillis convincingly drew a man who grew more and more tortured, especially as the Eidolons demanded higher blood prices as the battle continued.

–The Eidolons themselves were a fantastic creation. Thoroughly dangerous, extremely powerful, callously indifferent. I want more.

–Tregillis is a skilled writer. As a writer myself, I’m always appreciative of someone who takes great care in the writing of a story.

And the not so good:

Bitter Seeds suffers from something I see a lot in fiction. I call it the running in circles plot. Maybe the writer isn’t sure what to do next. Maybe the writer needs to up his page count. But sometimes a story starts running in circles, where the characters are going back and forth (sometimes literally) and not really getting anywhere. Not much plot movement, maybe a little character development. There were several times when I could feel the story lapsing into this.

–Aside from Gretel and Will, I cared little about any of the other characters. Our hero, Marsh, was fine, but he never made the leap off the page for me. Similarly, Klaus was very one note. His whole role was to protect his sister Gretel, and that’s all he did. The Germans, especially, were largely forgettable.

Nevertheless, Bitter Seeds (which is book one in a trilogy) is inventive, imaginative and thrilling. I’m looking forward to discovering where Tregillis will take us next.

Read this book: The Man From Berlin

The scariest monsters, it turns out, are all too human.


My Friend Luke McCallin‘s great book The Man From Berlin is a historical thriller set in Nazi-occupied Sarajevo. It’s a page-turner, ideal for anyone who loves reading about other times and places. McCallin creates (or re-creates) a time period with mesmerizing detail.

But part of me was hesitant to read it. Why? The protagonist, Gregor Reinhardt, is an officer in the German army. When I read I like to try and identify with the main character. I didn’t want to identify with a Nazi. Luke reminded me that not everyone in the German army during World War II was a Nazi.


That distinction wasn’t fine enough for me (and I’m still borderline). Lucky for me I got past this hesitation, because McCallin very subtly walks Reinhardt through the Nazi house of horrors. In the beginning, Reinhardt compartmentalizes: he’s a German soldier, separate from the Nazis. By the end, Reinhardt’s eyes are opened and he sees, like it or not, that he is playing a part in the evil the Nazis are perpetrating, even if his own hands aren’t bloody.

What is common knowledge for all of us – the atrocities committed – is new learning for Reinhardt, and through his eyes we come face to face with the scariest monsters of all, and they aren’t the demonic type. They are not vampires or werewolves or aliens. They’re human.

Take the character of Marija. The novel opens with Reinhardt being assigned to investigate her murder. She’s Croatian, but she collaborates with the Nazis, cataloging, observing, maybe even participating, in their horrors with creepy glee. Now, I have some doubts about whether she was as evil as depicted – she’s only described by others; we never actually see her in action. There’s a chance she was a scapegoat for others with their own agendas. Maybe. But it’s hard to read her as anything but a gorgeous monster.

I love to write about ghosts and monsters. The Last Conquistador stars a demon wreaking havoc on the life of a young Army soldier. But what I write is pure escapism – it’s safe to live in an imaginary world of ghosts and demons and vampires. It’s much harder to look head-on at the evil and danger that exists in this world, which is probably why we love roller coasters and monster movies.