An admission first: half of the books I have read since become an ebook convert have been chosen on the recommendation of a single source, Boing Boing. Their chief reviewer and hugely talented author in his own right, Cory Doctorow, has tastes so perfectly in alignment with my own that I barely even bother to read the details, I just dive right in. So obviously when he highlighted the closing chapter in a trilogy based around an alternate history of World War Two, one in which the Axis had access to superpowered Ubermenschen while the Allies pinned their hopes on more traditional warlocks, I was all in. The vision in my head was of a ludicrous, action-packed piece of sci-fi/fantasy nonsense, utterly lightweight and throwaway yet enjoyable. Next time I’ll read the review…
The Milkweed Triptych, comprised of Bitter Seeds, The Coldest War and Necessary Evil, begins shortly before the opening stages of the Second World War. The prologue introduces us to the key players on opposing sides, firstly a tough, opportunistic London orphan known as Raybould Marsh who is taken under the wing of government operative John Stephenson. On the other side are a pair of gypsy siblings, Gretel and Klaus, delivered into the hands of mad Nazi scientist Dr von Westarp by an unscrupulous farmer.
Fast forward a decade or so and Europe is on the verge of breaking out into war. Von Westarp’s brood have developed remarkable powers, variously able to become invisible, or even totally incorporeal, to start infernos, to crush tanks like paper models with thought alone or even, in Gretel’s case, to view all the potential twisting strands which the future might take and select the one with the most favourable outcome to follow. Marsh, now a spy moving up the ranks of the secret service, becomes aware of Germany’s new secret weapon through a bizarre and fatal encounter with a potential defector. The situation soon escalates and Stephenson, compelled by Marsh’s revelations, creates Project Milkweed, tasked with countering Germany’s now unstoppable advances using a force of warlocks rounded up by Marsh’s unlikely best friend, the aristocratic Will Beauclerk.
With a set-up like this we should be en route to mindless carnage, no? Surprisingly Ian Tregillis takes an altogether different tack with The Milkweed Triptych – it is a dark, bleak and thoughtful exploration of the lengths people will go to to fulfill their desires and the consequences thereof. Key to this is the mechanics of the warlocks’ particular skillset. Rather than typical magic they utilise a proto-language known as Enochian to communicate with the Eidolons, creatures who know no spatial or temporal limitations and whose abilities to warp the fabric of reality is matched only by their hatred of humanity. Unable to locate us (Will likens their efforts to trying to pinpoint one particular ant which could be anywhere on the globe), they demand blood prices for their favours, blood which forms a map leading to the human realm. Two things follow inevitably from this premise: the blood prices escalate the more we demand of them, and with each blood map they come closer to finding us. A recipe for disaster indeed.
Further complicating matters, and crucial to the entire plot of the series, is Gretel and her ability to divine and manipulate the future. Her ability, one employed, is apparently infallible and raises an important question – if the future is set, or at least chosen by Gretel, then do we have any free will? Marsh steadfastly rails against this, saying “I refuse to live in a clockwork universe”, a thought I’m sure we all instinctively cling to no matter that all scientific evidence is stacked against it. Will shares his conviction but Gretel’s wonderful response is simply “Of course you’re free little rabbit. Now hop along. Hop, hop, hop.” No matter your own personal position on the determinism vs free will debate you will still be entranced by the slow, disturbing development of Gretel’s character and the extent of the webs she weaves.which could be anywhere on the globe), they demand blood prices for their favours, blood which forms a map leading to the human realm. Two things follow inevitably from this premise: the blood prices escalate the more we demand of them, and with each blood map they come closer to finding us. A recipe for disaster indeed.
So, The Milkweed Triptych is far from the brain candy which I had anticipated and is an altogether more heavyweight and thought-provoking work. I have one major bone to pick with Ian Tregillis though and that’s the language employed in the dialogue throughout the book. Yes, I realise we’re dealing with a certain historical period and that anachronisms should lend it more authenticity but it tends to sound more like something out of a movie than actual conversation. Did anyone ever really say “Bloody hop”? And as for the character of the Scotsman, Lorimer, and his penchant for calling the apparently handsome Klaus a ‘minger’? ‘Minger’ is a Scots word specifically referring to an ugly person, certainly not a general derogatory term. Not a huge criticism and one which the majority of the book’s readers will be blissfully unaware of but it rankled with me enough to distract from the flow of the book. Thankfully his historical research is far better than his forays into Scots vernacular.
On the whole though The Milkweed Triptych, once I adjusted to the unexpected darkness of the tone, was a very enjoyable read and one which I steamed through quickly. History buffs will get a lot of mileage out of the attention paid to the details of WW2 and beyond, fantasy fans will love the concept of the Eidolons and their blood prices, while sci-fi (and probably comic) aficionados will find plenty to keep them occupied in Von Westarp’s lab-created superhumans and their insanely destructive powers. For the general fiction reader there’s a story of love, desperation, fall and redemption hidden behind the window dressing. Something for everyone in other words.