Monday, 31 December 2012

The Coldest War: Ian Tregillis

I read this in just over a day. For one thing, it's a nice short book that doesn't outstay its welcome, and for another thing, it's not the kind of book which is easy to put down. It took me the better part of a fortnight to get to the end of Dracula Cha Cha Cha, because it was all too easy to put that down and read something else. 

It's been about three months since I read Bitter Seeds, the first book in the trilogy for which The Coldest War is the middle bit. The middle bit tends to be where you get the measure of a writer. Middles are hard, and the second book tends to be the one where the publisher is piling on the pressure and you have to rush things. I had pretty high hopes for The Coldest War despite those worries, because Bitter Seeds had looked like part of something which had been carefully worked out in advance. And so it proved. Tregillis had thought through what he wanted to do and how he wanted things to unfold, and he'd also thought about how to keep his characters interesting when we check back in on them after twenty years. They're still not the most deeply drawn characters in the history of fiction, but they make sense in their own worlds. The things they do are consistent with what we've seen them do in the past, and they're also the kinds of things we could easily imagine ourselves sliding into if our own lives had unfolded in such horrible ways.

Bitter Seeds saw Britain winning the war against Germany by the skin of its teeth, but losing Europe to the Soviets, and with it all the German mad science which had sent Britain racketing over the edge of the dark side just to stay in the game. The Coldest War checks in on the consequences twenty years later, with a wall splitting Paris in two and Britain struggling in a world where it survived a war, kept an Empire and never gained its greatest ally; America is "in the fourth decade of its Great Depression". The Soviet Union is biding its time, twitching on all the borders of the Empire and building up its own versions of the super soldier technology it filched from Germany as the war ended. The team which gave Britain its magical edge twenty years before is disillusioned or dead, and it's only a matter of time before the Soviets make their move against an apparently defenceless empire.

Enter Gretel the mad seer from the first book, and the next stage of her inscrutable plan to do Tregillis-only-knows-what. The book opens with her finally fleeing from Soviet imprisonment and pitching up in Britain with an elaborate scheme to cash in on her manipulation of events in the last book by manipulating the British characters some more. Tregillis gets across the sheer frustration of trying to out-scheme a maniac who can actually see the future; how can her opponents know whether they're playing into her hands or not? Getting that across without spelling it out endlessly is a neat trick, but neater by far is the way in which Tregillis ruthlessly smashes every character into a broken bewildered state in which they're fair game for any kind of manipulation. Marsh has had a horrible time of things since the war; he's quit the secret service, his marriage has fallen apart and he's living from one odd job to the next. Beauclerk collapsed into alcoholism and drug addiction only to be saved by the love of a good woman and then sell out to his posho brother's pro-Soviet think tank. Both are riddled with hatred and self doubt, but very cleverly, everything that's broken about them is part of the bigger plan Gretel's working towards. Which makes for some very solid story telling and you can almost forgive the notion that the fate of the British Empire would rest on a couple of screw-ups who the entire high command has completely lost sight of. Of course, that's more plausible than it usually is, because it turns out that the Empire has a plan B these two deadbeats knew nothing about, and which on the surface looks like a brilliant - albeit utterly immoral - alternative that renders the antics of the first book completely obsolete.

It's all very well plotted, is what I suppose I'm trying to say. And the writing's actually kicked up a notch from the first book, as though Tregillis was settling into his groove with his characters and had sketched in all the background so that he was free to give us more of a sense of the personalities. All in all, Tregillis has actually pulled off the rather neat trick of living up to my expectations. The whole thing gets wrapped up with a bow in the spring of next year, and I'm looking forward to seeing how he gets everyone out of the fix he's left them in at the end of this book.

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