I didn’t intend to read/listen to yet another alternate WWII fantasy novel this spring… (I didn’t know there were that many alternate WWII fantasy novels…) But there it was in my Audible library, and as I’ve been using earphones defensively against the onslaught of noise in the office (why do people have to yell at the top of their lungs? And have multiple radios going?) I’ve been going through a good many audiobooks this year.
It took quite a bit of getting used to, this alternate timeline. After other books I’ve read this year, between Connie Willis and Erik Larsen, I’ve become a bit familiar with the ebb and flow of WWII. So this was odd, with so little context for the warlockly doings. It made it difficult to tell how or if the course of the war was altered – the grafting on of what Richard (Richard Reviles Censorship Always in All Ways of Goodreads) has called Magicque. The fleet of private ships that evacuated Dunkirk failed in this reality – or not? It isn’t clear – but the evacuation ship City of Benares was sunk, just as it was in the current reality. (Though the latter was almost made to sound like something resulting from the Eidolon and the OKW.) It was interesting to see the Red Orchestra show up. Even something like the “heil Hitler” salute – it came as a surprise when someone used it, which made me realize that was the first one of the book, as far as I noticed. Which, considering some half the book is set in Germany or amongst the Nazis, is odd. I don’t think as much was really done with the branching of events as could have been; apparently the war ended in 1940, and there was little exploration of what that meant in the world at large. I came to very much dislike Jo Walton’s Small Change series (which featured a non-magicque alternate timeline), but in some ways exposition of what that world was like was done rather better than in this book.
With half the characters being from London and its surrounds, I wish the narrator had been British. Or perhaps I just wish he had better at accents; main character Raybould Marsh starts out as a street urchin, and faces disdain among politicians because of his origins – but the accent the narrator gives him isn’t far off the others’ with had much posher backgrounds. Will’s was nice, and Lorimer’s, but the German accents reminded me alternately of Arnold Schwarzeneggar and Hogan’s Heroes. Also, it was distracting and sometimes confusing that characters’ internal monologues were in, basically, the narrator’s own accent, not at all the characters’.
I keep trying to put my finger on the quality that makes one book perfect for me and another anathema; in a synesthetic sort of way I can almost associate a color with an author’s writing. Bitter Seeds felt like a sort of ochre, a little heavy, a little resistant. But there were moments that I loved; one I made a note of was: ” The flint in his gaze had been knapped into arrowheads, all aimed at Marsh.” That’s quite nice, I thought.
Then of course there was the moment it made me smile and think of Firefly: “‘Dangerous? That’s your question? If you’re seeking a new hobby, Pip, you’re better off juggling rabid badgers on a street corner. You might even make a few quid.'” Some people juggle geese…
Another flash of amusement came from “Klaus wondered if many great men shuffled around in their dressing gowns and obsessed over their bowel movements.” It struck me, based in part on the weird variety of books I’ve been reading, that … yes, actually, a fair number of great men probably do and have done exactly that. (And not so great men, too.)
All of the senses are attended to in the storytelling. The falling of a syringe makes a distinct sound. Cigarette smoke; the flight of birds; the grip of a handshake; the flavor of chocolate – taste and touch and smell and sight and sound permeate the book, to the point that it stops being a good thing and simply becomes repetitive.
Part of the disconnect I felt with the book was in the fact that despite the attention to detail in description, more information would have been useful in other places, or more specific information. As mentioned above, the alternate WWII timeline could have been made more clear. (Warning: this gets a bit squicky…) One character sacrifices what is specifically described as a fingertip… but the shears “crunched together at the center of [his] finger”, and thenceforth he suffers “phantom limb” pain, and there is mention of a “missing finger”. In my world, the fingertip is the fleshy bit at the, er, tip of the finger, the bit that will make contact if you bring your finger straight down onto your desk. The end of it. Small area. Tip. Not even necessarily including any nail. My father lost the tip of one finger in an accident long ago, and you’d never have known it. So … Er?
For Will’s story alone, this nearly went up to 4 stars, and he would be the only reason I would pursue the series. I became impatient with Marsh, and never could scrape up much interest in the almost dimensionlessly Evil Nazis, but Will was a fantastic character with a compelling arc (though his path might have been too determinedly downhill to form an actual arc). Unfortunately, I don’t think he’s enough reason to go and seek out Book 2.