BITTER SEEDS: Alternate WWII novel pits English warlocks against Nazi X-Men

Ian Tregillis's stellar debut novel Bitter Seeds hits shelves today. It's a beautifully written and thoroughly researched alternate WWII history, the twist being that a mad German scientist has discovered a way to endow a group of sociopaths -- raised from WWI orphans -- with X-Men-like powers that have made the Wehrmacht unstoppable.

To counter this, a desperate Great Britain establishes a secret division composed of a tiny number of British warlocks -- shades of Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell -- men who use speech in a mystical Ur-language, accompanied by blood sacrifice, to call up vast, brutal elemental forces. These forces, the Eidolons, loathe humanity and tremble in barely restrained rage at the stain we spread on the universe, but they can be bargained with, blood traded for elemental magick.

Tregillis writes and plots beautifully. The characters -- twisted German psychics, bitter warlocks, the brutal calculators of the British intelligence apparat -- are complex, textured, surprising. The physical descriptions are wonderful. And the plot is relentless, a driving adventure story with intrigue, battle, sacrifice, and betrayal.

I had the extreme pleasure of teaching Ian Tregillis at the Clarion Workshop some years ago, and he was one of my most promising students, a standout in a year of standout writers. So I am unsurprised -- but totally delighted -- to find myself reading such a tremendous debut from him. This is the first volume of the Milkweed Triptych, and I'm extremely eager to read the rest.

Bitter Seeds


  1. Oh…oh my goodness. Just reading that description I feel light-headed from the awesome. German Super-Nazis? British Spook Warlocks? SOLD.

  2. Sounds like a lot of fun. But: I think all the secret occult/madsciencey Nazi supersoldiers described in fiction outnumber the real life German military at this point.

  3. Premise FTW! Sounds much like some Marvel Comics What If universe offerings, but that’s definitely not a bad thing.

    I wish there were a sample chapter posted here too help me decide whether or not to purchase this. The people at Borders have begun insisting I remove my tent.

  4. Sounds like it has a lot in common with the back story from Charles Stross’ Laundary books. Which is not a criticism – quite the reverse – it seems like an awesome premise.

  5. What a fantastic cover! The judicious use of fonts and cover art really make this stand out from the normal fantasy-art cover (and yes, I know that the author has no say in the cover art or design, but that makes this all the more impressive). Plot sounds interesting, too–I’ll have to check this one out of the library.

  6. I actually find the extent of apparent popularity for this new genre of fiction quite irritating, where a real war, where millions were killed at the hands of a truly evil army, is subtly blended in to a cheesy, seemingly-true story that is not only completely false, but is ultimately a mockery of the real tragedies of war.

    One step closer in this direction:

  7. Sounds fantastic, plus has a (kind’ve) historical basis: according to the wiki on british occultist Dion Fortune, she “claimed to have participated in the “Magickical Battle of Britain”, which was supposedly an attempt by British occultists to magically aid the war effort, and which aimed to forstall the German invasion during the darkest days of World War 11.” No nazi x-men though. That we know of.

    1. Yes, Fortune was trying to raise up the Arthur mythos agaisnt the Teutonic myth of Barbarossa. Wild, wild stuff

      1. Wow – sounds awesome. Did 2nd Edition Wild Talents ever ship? I picked up the Essential Edition at Gen Con a couple of years ago and never heard if the final version ever came out…

        Incidentally – the Arc Dream guys are cool as hell. Shane Ivey ran us through a Godlike scenario that same year and it was loads of fun.

  8. Man, I totally did a double-take when I got to the last paragraph. “Wait… Clarion? I thought I was reading about a comic book.” Not that I can’t see a Clarion graduate scripting a comic, but still. Something about the cover design said “comic” rather than “novel” to me.

    And now that I look again I find myself wondering if that cover art is John Jude Palencar, or just someone heavily influenced by him.

  9. Spoiler alert: the tipping point of the war comes when the Americans storm the beaches of Normandy with several divisions of werewolves.

  10. Since we’re covering “British magick versus the Reich”, I liked Katherine Kurtz’s Lammas Night.

    1. Not to trivialize this book, which looks like it was printed with awesome sauce instead of ink, I like Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

  11. The cover art is John Jude Palencar. Speaking of games, there’s a clue-based puzzle game hiding all over Ian’s website ( called Chronicle of Sorrows with a copy of the book as first prize.

  12. Suffer this . . .

    Nazis are not “trendy” . . .

    SIX MILLION DEAD JEWS testify to this TRUTH.

    1. Maybe the text itself should be judged on its own merits after a cover to cover read rather than criticizing the concept.

      Just a thought.

    2. Now where did I put the rest of those…oh, yes, and 6 million Gypsies and Homosexuals. I nearly forgot half of my outrage!

    3. Can we safely assume you harbor just as much shivering, tear-soaked indignation for the Captain America comics? And Schindler’s List, were you out there picketing in ’93?

      In this flailing boorish culture of ours, we tend to grapple with the past by incorporating it into our pool of fantasy and fiction. As far as this (admittedly quite flawed) large-scale habit is concerned, to not do so for a significant historical event is to deny it’s relevance, or even it’s occurrence.

  13. To the nay-sayers…

    I can sympathize with not wanting to exploit the horrors of war, but I don’t think I would hear the same complaints about historical fiction set in Roman times.

    Perhaps you should crack the cover of the book before equating it with Hogan’s Heroes. History belongs to all of us, and there are respectful and disrespectful ways of using it.

    But while we are talking about Nazi occult books, how about one which claims to be non-fiction – Trevor Ravenscroft’s Spear of Destiny. It kind of goes off the rails part way through, IMO, but truth or fiction, it is worth reading.

    1. In defense of Hogan’s Heros’ portrayal of German soldiers, pretty much all of the recurring German characters were played by Jews, two spent time in Nazi prison camps and four also served in various Allied armed forces during the war. The actor who played Colonel Klink (Werner Klemperer) actually insisted on changing Klink from an efficient motivated Nazi into a bumbling, self-preservation-focused fool. One may suspect he did this to get his own revenge on the Nazis who did such horrible things to his people. (

  14. I’m reminded of The Unthinkable, a short story by Bruce Sterling (appears in the excellent Globalhead anthology), which combines Strategic Arms Limitation Talks with Lovecraftian horror.

    (Globalhead also contains We See Things Diffferently, which is pretty much the best short story by anyone, ever.)

  15. I just picked this up at the library yesterday and am 4 chapters into it. It’s a really fun read. Thanks for the suggestion.

  16. I think it’s at the Apple store. My friend found it for about 12 bucks for his iTouch. I was pleasantly surprised to find 3 brand new copies at my local library.

  17. Sounds cool and I like the cover, but too often I’m attracted to a graphic novel by a splendid cover only to be disappointed by the art inside. It’s as if more effort was put into the cover than the interior art. That’s true of many series comics as well, but not always — and when you’re spoiled by great interior art anything less than great is a let down.

    1. It’s a novel novel, not a graphic novel. So don’t worry about the art inside.

      I think several of us thought it was a graphic novel, by the comments above. I guess the cover is very graphic novel-like, and the plot description even more so.

  18. This is a popular game genre, too. Incursion, Dust and Tannhauser are all variants on the “Nazis develop supernatural combat forces thereby prolonging WW2 and have to be fought by arcane-ish Allied technologies”. The Nazis seem to often end up employing zombies, though, and Allies tend to end up using actual technology–for example, massive suits of high-tech armor powered by diesel engines–but the idea’s much the same.

  19. Cory, you have turned me on to some of the best books I’ve ever encountered, so I’m trusting you again and buying this sight unseen. Thanks, DogStarMan, for your remarks too.

    I teach history and found a really cool article on counterfactual historical fiction, but my college students got totally confused by it. Apparently they’d NEVER encountered this genre before and didn’t know anything about scifi or fantasy. Weird.

  20. Thanks for the recommendation, Cory. You have a great track record with me for media suggestions, so I picked this up immediately.

    I’m both a SciFi/Fantasy fan and a WWII buff, so this was a fun premise. I’m on the last few pages and it was quite an enjoyable read, no less because it’s set earlier during the war – which isn’t covered nearly as much in popular culture.

    Without giving spoilers away, I thought it was well worth reading and I look forward to Ian’s subsequent books as I see some real potential. For a first novel, this one is quite good.

  21. Cory, I ordered Bitter Seeds based on your recommendation. Your books kick ass, and you kick ass, so anything you think kicks ass, probably kicks ass.

    Just thought I’d tell you that you are appreciated and are making a difference.


  22. Seems to be a popular theme. I immediately thought of David Brin’s The Life Eaters (Nazi’s summoning the Norse gods to overpower the allied forces).

  23. Picked it up on your recommendation and I’m loving it. Well written and a consistent pace. A pleasure to read on my commute.

  24. Yes, nice cover. Not sure about the book though. It might pass some time nicely, but I’d really like something more than just another alternate world SF novel, no matter how well-written.

    Not that I want to judge it before reading it, but I think it needs more than Cory’s described in his review.

    IIRC, Dion Fortune did indeed make that claim, and Gerald Gardner, I think, and plenty of others! Prancing around sky clad on the white cliffs of Dover in at least one account.

    Spear of Destiny is certainly fiction, and if only he’d marketed it as such and added a narrator, maybe a detective story in the present, he might have had a huge bestseller on his hands!

  25. Just finished it up. What a great book. I’m ready for the next one.

    BTW…is there an easy way to find all the books Corey has reviewed? I think we have similar tastes and I’d like to see what other books he’s suggested on this site.

  26. Ugh, it’s available for the Kindle…but the price is “$12.99, set by the publisher”. Sorry, Ian, I’m not playing the “higher price to save me money (??) [and lessen his cut, for that matter]” game. $9.99 and I’d buy it in a hot minute. Keep shooting yourself in the foot, Tor.

  27. Ahem.

    “Warlocks” are oath-breakers.

    Students of the Craft of all genders are Witches.


    1. What exactly is your point? It’s a piece of alt-historical fiction. Traditionaly “warlock” meant a male witch, even if the word is derived from “oath-breaker” or “deceiver”.
      I personally look forward to reading it.

  28. If the description of this book strikes your fancy, you should check out the amazing WWII spy thriller, DECLARE, by Tim Powers. Brilliant blend of history and the fantastic. When you’re done with that, check out Tim Power’s Three Days to Never. Charlie Chaplin, Albert Einstein, the Mossad, quantum physics, and more interwoven into a modern thriller.

    Two of my favorite books. Sounds like I’ll give Bitter Seeds a try. Thanks!

  29. There’s been a lot of talk about exploiting the horrors of war here.

    I’d like to turn this argument on its head, and suggest that perhaps this is just society’s way of coming to grips with tragedies that have passed.

    If you look at the history of cinema, it seems as if there’s a grieving process for stories and films related to a particular war. To use WWII as an example (not the only one where this has happened but a good one):

    It starts with the storytellers getting over the shock of the event by making heroes of their particular side (ie worthy heroic war films of the 1950’s where everyone died.)
    From there it moves to fictionalising the villains and fighting against them in fantasy conflicts, both as wish-fulfillment and to “not let the next generation forget” (as in “The Great Escape” or the like)

    As time goes on and the survivors get older, these two genres continue on separate courses. The worthy tragic stories get progressively more bittersweet and esoteric (“Diary of Anne Frank” and such), while the wish-fulfillment stories grow more and more outlandish (“Superman vs. the Nazis”). It’s at this point parodies appear (Any Mel Brooks film, or the UK shows “Allo Allo” and “Dad’s Army”), since the wish-fulfillment has reached a point where it is begging to be made fun of.

    Finally we get to the point where, three generations on, the context and real weight of the original tragedy is lost, and what is left is a lazy cultural shorthand for evil (the Hitler parodies on You Tube, or the intellectually lazy folks in political debates who call their opponents Nazis.)

    Of course, there’s crossover between these eras, but you will notice that the films and books tend to stick to their times as the public taste for them changes. “A Bridge Too Far” will probably never be remade, even given financially desperate Hollywood’s current penchant for safe bets. This is because people have moved on.

    Basically, I reckon what we’re seeing here are examples of the last. The last veterans of the WWII conflict are dying, and with them is passing any realistic memory of what happened. What’s left in its place is an easy archetype for evil which saves writers the trouble of having to come up with an original scary villain for themselves.

  30. It’s not like I wasn’t interested in the book. But this tasty little bite of free publicity just goes to show that it’s not what you do, it’s who you know.

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