Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Bitter Seeds: Ian Tregillis

There will be, it is only fair to warn you, a number of digressions in this post.

So, our theme for the evening is Bitter Seeds, the first book in a trilogy called The Milkweed Triptych, by a man named Ian Tregillis. It's all about British wizards fighting psychic Nazi super soldiers in a slightly different (because, you know, wizards and super soldiers) version of World War II. Trust me, at some point I'll get back to that; think of this as the cold open to some superior US TV show where a whole bunch of stuff happens that doesn't appear to have anything to do with the plot until it's brilliantly revealed to be relevant.

Firstly; trilogies. As the prophet Jerry would say, "What IS it with trilogies?" They're everywhere, and the only thing keeping down their numbers is the way that they metastasise and turn into novel cycles, thus not being trilogies any more. I used to blame Tolkien, which was unfair; yes, The Lord of the Rings came out in three volumes, but it was written as a single book, and the only reason it came out in three volumes was that his publishers had to manage costs. So it's not like Tolkien was even setting out to write a trilogy. More to the point, in the early 19th century, when the novel was finding its feet as an art form, it was the norm to publish in three or more volumes novels which are now always seen as single books. 

All that handwaving done, the horrible reality is that SF and Fantasy are actively festooned with trilogies, and other genres either live with one-offs or have longer running series. The whole notion of not being able to get the job done quickly has become a signature trope of the Fantasy biz in particular, and I'd rather like a halt called to it. It seems to me that writers think they're being paid by the pound. And to be unkind, a lot of writers working in fantasy are doing themselves no favours at all by allowing their prose to yarn on and on; the more words they use, the easier it is to see how few they actually know.

Nonetheless, I'm giving Tregillis a pass on this one, because he's actually got a plan. I still think that anyone who can figure out the whole plot in advance could figure out a way to get it all into one book, but having read the first book, nobody can accuse Tregillis of padding out the narrative with overly detailed accounts of stuff that ain't to the purpose, nor yet sending us off on a Cook's tour of his imaginary world so that we don't miss a single detail, no matter how inessential. (This latter thing is half the reason that Fantasy novels are such doorstops; the writers seem to draw their maps and then feel the need to show their work and hie us all over creation - literally - so that we'll see how fecund their imagination is. NOT. NECESSARY. STAHP.) It looks to me as thought three books is about what he's going to need to get this over the line, and he's not dawdling. And because one of his main characters is an oracle, from the get go he's had to know pretty much where this is all going, so I can be cautiously optimistic that this is going to be paced properly and will wrap cleanly instead of being rushed into closure.

Next up; I'd innocently started out thinking that anyone called Ian Tregillis must have been sitting in a drafty room in the Home Counties somewhere swilling tea and hoping that the old JK Rowling write-a-best-seller-on-the-dole magic still worked. Turns out he was sitting in the warmth of New Mexico, making it all up from what he could read in libraries and the like about WWII Europe. Sadly, I kind of guessed this might be the case pretty early on, because Agatha Christie name or not, Tregillis does not really have an English sensibility to his writing. He's not bad, but he's not a native speaker, as we'd say of colleagues hammering the stress on just the wrong word in the sentence back in my peace mongering days. Still, pretty good impersonation, and I think you'd need to be pretty soaked in Englishness to pick up the bum notes.

Thirdly, Tregillis doesn't mess about much. Incidents are inked in tersely, business gets done briskly and we get on to the next thing. Sometimes it almost seems cursory. On three different occasions, one of the main characters, Marsh, gets away from a sticky situation in about four lines. We've got what we needed from the incident and the tricky transition back to Blighty and the next plot development is practically done as a scene wipe. It's bold, is what it is. I hope it catches on. Equally, Tregillis isn't pulling his punches about how compromised his characters become. It's always a bit of a stretch to put people up against the Nazis and make them look dodgy, but by the end of Bitter Seeds the British high command are starting to look pretty bad to the reader and even worse to themselves in the mirror. 

Although Tregillis isn't (couldn't be on his first day out) a patch on the one and only Tim Powers, he's the first guy I've read in a while who reminded me of his sensibility. In Powers' world magic is a messy, squirmy thing which carries a heavy price and routinely swipes bystanders for no rhyme or reason. Powers writes a world which is blatantly unfair, and draws the reader so deeply into it that even the most preposterous things start to matter. The Stress of Her Regard is one of the few novels whose ending has made me tear up. It's a hard book to read because the clobbering never really lets up, and the best you can say of the ending is that it's bittersweet. Even getting into the same box as Powers is not bad work at all for a young 'un.

So, what about Bitter Seeds? I wasn't sure as I was reading it. It's rough in places, and the briskness doesn't always carry off as well as it ought to. There aren't many well rounded characters in it, and they're a little bit stock - I'm sure the right word is archetype, but if this was a movie, you'd need some good actors to bring them fully to life. But - and this is, in the end, the only thing that counts - I've been mulling the book over in my mind and wondering what comes next. That's perhaps a good sign, though I remember thinking the same thing about The Hunger Games and look where that took me. The two main British characters, Marsh and Beauclerk, are developing in interesting ways. Mostly they're getting clobbered to bits and not shaking off the clobbering, but it feels organic and believable. Dealing with demons has a price, and they're paying it. Over on the Nazi-super soldier side of things, the Nazis aren't coming out of it any better than they deserve to, but the super soldiers are curiously sympathetic considering - or perhaps because - they're the product of systematic child abuse. It's a bad war for everyone, and Tregillis leaves the pieces set up on the table for a big shift of gear in the next book. Yeah, I think I'm in for the duration.

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