Saturday, 11 May 2013

Ian Tregillis: Necessary Evil

I had high hopes starting into Necessary Evil. The first two books in the Milkweed Trilogy felt as though they were part of a carefully worked out three book plot, and I was expecting Necessary Evil to tie it all up in a satisfying bow. It does wrap everything up, but not as cleverly as I'd been expecting. Just as Gretel loses her ability to see the future early on, Tregillis seemed to lose his ability to have everything turn out as part of a cunning plan.

I found myself cranking, just a bit. "Billfolds" I was thinking. "No-one called wallets billfolds on 1940s England, did they?" I'm not even sure how to check that, it just felt wrong. Then about halfway through the book, there's a tense moment as Marsh hares around Coventry trying to find an address, and all the tension flew out of it when he started running over postboxes and scrambling through the mail to work out the address. At the time, finding your way round any English town even in broad daylight was … challenging … because they'd thoughtfully removed all the street signs to make life more difficult for the German paratroopers who were expected to show up at any moment. But individual mailboxes on a stick that you can run over with a car are a uniquely suburban American phenomenon. If Marsh had collided with a postbox, it would have been full of letters people had just posted, and their addresses would have told him all the places that he was miles away from… 

These are not new issues; Tregillis has been wrestling with the gap between his own experience and the world of the 1940s in England all the way through the trilogy. It's just that up until now he'd been moving fast enough in interesting directions that I didn't have the spare time to think about the little niggles. In Necessary Evil, he's lost momentum, and more than that, lost the ability to throw something new and unexpected at the page.

The second book ended with Marsh being hurled back in time in an effort to reverse all the catastrophic decisions which had culminated in the complete destruction of the world in 1963. Right there - and I should have seen this coming - Tregillis had created a problem; if you go back in time, the characters have to live through stuff the reader's already seen, and it's always going to be tricky to make it interesting the second time round. It's easy enough to play that kind of thing for comedy, but it's a lot harder to play it for drama, and I hadn't appreciated before quite how tricky it might be do it on the page. Tregillis decided to distinguish between the 1940s Marsh and the Back From the Future Marsh by having the time traveller a first person narrator, while sticking to third person narrative for his other viewpoints. Even with that, I found myself losing track of who was in the driving seat from scene to scene. 

It's almost sad to see Gretel defanged. Throughout the first two books, we were at one remove from her, watching as apparently random incidents years apart turned out to be connected parts of a plan that only she could visualise. But in the third book, the massive reboot for the whole system has left her almost as clueless as everyone around her, ironically while the main characters now assume that everything they're doing must still be part of a cunning plan. There was a thread here which could have been teased out to fun effect, but Tregillis seems to have decided in parallel that the most satisfying resolution of his overall plot would be to have Marsh's world of demons and super soldiers reset to the universe we're actually living in, so gradually each of Marsh's actions brings the history of World War II back into line with our own history. Played properly, this could have been interesting in its own way, since what the reader knows can still be a big surprise to the characters on the page, but it takes a lot of work to make that happen, and in the end you're just getting the meh effect of turning a surprising world into a  mundane one. I can see how it would have seemed like a good idea conceptually at the beginning of the work, but it makes for a very flat ending, and oddly one without a lot of tension in it. Once you can see which way this has to go, you know the broad sweep of the global stakes. The world is not going to end; in fact nothing unexpected for the reader is going to happen. What's left is what might happen to the characters, and somehow they're not given the time and space to make the reader care enough what happens to them. 

I'm making this all sound worse than it is. Necessary Evil is not a terrible book by any means. It's more that it comes as a weak close to a strong opening and middle. It doesn't have the sheer muscle that the other two books had, either in terms of new ideas flying off the page or the willingness to grind up the characters to get the stakes across. The three books taken together are a solid chunk of work, but this is not the strongest part of it.

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