Monday, July 25, 2011
Bitter Seeds, by Ian Tregillis
[If you're down for a toys-in-the-sandbox brawl between warlocks and superheroes, go let your mind wander for a bit while your grown-up eyes read the rest of this post.]
For the amount of books I read (all of which I used to post about on this blog, though lately that number has dropped to those that beg more thoughts or insight from me), I'm often surprised by how few of them grip me, grab me, snag me, and refuse to let go of me until I turn to the back cover and discover the promise of no more pages.
Bitter Seeds is that rare book, and it could hardly have been written by a friendlier guy.
Ian Tregillis was one of the science fiction and fantasy authors featured at this summer's Mythcon conference in Albuquerque. In coordinating these writers' track panels, I met and shot the shit with some of the authors (including Daniel Abraham--check out the interview below--and Ty Franck, who co-wrote a book I'll be posting about soon), all of whom are pretty cool guys. And as if anyone doubted the intelligence of solid fantasy authors, these panels proved just how sharp this collection of Southwest-based writers really is. (Shout out to Melinda Snodgrass, Carrie Vaughn, Robert Vardeman, and Jane Lindskold, too!)
Then there was Ian. If you saw him in a crowd and had to label him, you would say something like "physicist." Which he is. Abraham called him (and I'm paraphrasing here) a fucking genius, and he's hardly exaggerating. But on top of that, he was incredibly eloquent with his words, giving with his time, and open with his ever-increasing fan base.
And almost none of us had heard of him before Mythcon.
Okay, I'm done touting him as a person. You don't buy some stranger's book because he's a nice guy. But Bitter Seeds is excellent. It's the first volume in a trilogy (The Milkweed Triptych; the second book doesn't come out til summer 2012, and I'm already considering a pre-order), and what an opening salvo it is.
If I pitch the book as an alternate history of World War II, where the Nazis scientifically create superheroes and the British turn to warlocks, you may think it sounds hokey, a hapless mish-mash of fantasy and sci-fi. But it ain't. This book is excellently crafted, and it does what so much fantasy doesn't (and to its detriment): the powers of its characters are limited, and they come with severe cost.
This story isn't a young boy's sandbox dream clash between magicians and Superman. Each wizardly process demands British blood sacrifices. The superheroes last only as long as their batteries--and these orphans-cum-lab rats all have their own shortcomings. Doesn't that just ring true, despite the fantastical nature of it? So many great leaps we make as individuals and as a society come at some cost. Besides, what fun is a great achievement if it comes without any inherent risk? That, to me, is why Tregillis's book pulls off its alternate world so effectively.
Not to mention that the hardcover edition (can't speak yet for the paperback) is incredibly handsome. I hope the publishers make the whole trilogy match, because so few books these days look this good on a shelf. And so few books that look good on a shelf make for reading this fine.
If you buy one genre book this year, make it Bitter Seeds. And I say that with the painful realization that the next book on my list would deserve the mantle almost any other year, with almost any other competition.