Monday, December 3, 2012

The Coldest War, by Ian Tregillis

One of the best follow-ups in ages. Check it out for yourself, and support the blog in the process!

Last year, I came across Ian Tregillis and his first novel, Bitter Seeds. This book blew my hair back in a big way. So many follow-ups are disappointments -- they continue toying with a played-out premise, or forget what made their readers fall in love with the early stories, or lose threads, or fail to surprise their readers any more.

The Coldest War, in the most emphatic way, is NOT one of those sequels. Tregillis isn't writing a train of connected books, seeing what happens with the same characters twenty years later. He's crafting a series where the second book changes how you read the first one. If the first volume blew my hair back, then I can blame the second one for my encroaching baldness, because my hair couldn't even hold on for the ride this time. (I almost regret coming to this series while it's still being published. I would have sacrificed needed sleep last night to read the third book straight through.)

In the first volume, I appreciated how Tregillis (more than many authors of all genres, though it's particularly important in sci-fi and fantasy) gave each of his characters' actions risk and consequence. The bigger the action, the weightier the repercussions. And no action is easy; every one is dearly purchased and limits further actions.

The Coldest War does the same thing, though perhaps less of it -- this volume's less about supermen vs. warlocks and more about emotions and machinations. In this book, I noticed the importance of precise language taking its place. The words spoken come with immense consequences and are all the more dangerous because they are so easily breathed.

The necessity of linguistic precision crops up in many stories about magic. Spells go wrong because of the nuance of translation, or the ambiguity of grammar, or the altered meanings that come with variations of tone. The concept is nothing new.

What Tregillis remembers, though, is that words aren't only magical when magic is being performed. The very act of language is itself alchemic. We take abstract concepts, give them representative symbols (in words and sounds), and cause events to happen, emotions to swing, people's behavior to alter. Sometimes it's simply physics -- our vocal chords vibrate the air, which sends tremors to our eardrums or to mechanized voice detectors. And sometimes, the effects of language go beyond our capacity to explain with physics.

Whether people wield words like scalpels or scythes, they cause shit to happen. And in The Coldest War, hoo boy, does shit ever happen.

[Superficial side note: I am no book designer, nor a publisher, so I hardly know best what helps a book on the shelves sell. If the new cover designs for the Milkweed Triptych will increase sales and get The Coldest War into more hands, it's a success. I mourn the loss of the dust jacket design from Bitter Seeds, though. It was one of the more handsome, melancholic, evocative covers I've seen, and I looked forward to having a complete matching set. Ah well; so it goes.]

1 comment:

  1. I need to take a lesson from Tregillis. Too often, I do not always put a good price on my characters' actions.

    A very enticing overview! Can't wait to read this and the first book!