Tor, 2012, 352 pages
Someone is killing Britain's warlocks.
Twenty-two years after the Second World War, a precarious balance of power maintains the peace between Great Britain and the USSR. For decades, the warlocks have been all that stand between the British Empire and the Soviet Union-- a vast domain stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the shores of the English Channel. But now each death is another blow to Britain's security.
Meanwhile, a brother and sister escape from a top-secret research facility deep behind the Iron Curtain. Once subjects of a twisted Nazi experiment to imbue ordinary humans with extraordinary abilities, then prisoners of war in the vast Soviet effort to reverse engineer the Nazi technology, they head for England.
Because that's where former spy Raybould Marsh lives. And Gretel, the mad seer, has plans for him.
As Marsh is drawn back into the world of Milkweed, he discovers that Britain's darkest acts didn't end with the war. And as he strives to protect Queen and country, he's forced to confront his own willingness to accept victory at any cost.
Warning: This review contains spoilers for book one, Bitter Seeds.
Bitter Seeds was a great debut novel about an alternate-Earth's World War II. In it, Nazis figure out how to create supermen, and unable to fight them, Britain resorts to recruiting warlocks, who can summon beings called Eidolons capable of destroying armies. The problem is that the Eidolons consider humans a stain upon reality, and in exchange for every service they perform, they demand blood sacrifices. So the main British characters of Bitter Seeds, Will and Marsh, ended up serving a super-secret organization called Milkweed that had to provide those blood sacrifices.
The first book ended with many of the Nazi super-men dead, the Eidolons having just wiped out a German invasion fleet, and siblings Klaus and Gretel being hustled off as prisoners by Soviet occupation troops.
I thought the next book would continue World War II. Instead, The Coldest War picks up twenty-two years later. It's 1963, and the USSR now controls all of Europe, except for Britain. The British believe that their doughty heroism fended off the Nazis and now keeps them free from the Soviets. The truth is that it's their warlocks, and Milkweed has to regularly arrange bombings, train derailments, sinking ships, and other fatal accidents killing innocent civilians in order to keep empowering the Eidolons, who are the only thing really holding back a Soviet invasion.
To make matters worse, the Soviets occupied Germany, so they have the technology that created the German superhumans. When it turns out that Soviet agents are killing off Britain's warlocks, Milkweed figures they are preparing a big move, possibly an invasion, and they summon Marsh and Will back to work.
The Coldest War is a rare book: it's the middle book of a trilogy that does not slump at all. It's better than the first book, and based on the ending, I'm not sure I will like the third (though I am definitely going to read it soon). Like Bitter Seeds, the sequel is full of action, from the Lovecraftian horror of the Eidolons to battles between superhumans, even more powerful than before. There is tons of violence, the fast pace just keeps ramping up all the way to the end, and stakes get bigger and bigger: first it's the fate of the characters, then it's the fate of Britain, and then it's literally the fate of the world.
As in the first book, characterization is a little weak at times, but the characters are more three-dimensional in this book. Will, who seems to have made a splendid comeback after having hit rock bottom at the end of the last book, is actually haunted by guilt, but while he thinks he's trying to atone for his sins, he turns out to be the same self-centered, rationalizing asshole he always was. And then when you think he's past redemption, he gets better in the second half of the book. Meanwhile, Marsh, who was a golden boy in the first book, is now a failure, an unemployed, alcoholic, emasculated wretch, with a wife who's turned into a poisonous harpy and a hellish home life.
However, what makes this book truly brilliant is Gretel.
Gretel was the mad seer of book one. Gifted with the power of precognition, she sees the future with almost omniscient accuracy. We started to realize by the end of Bitter Seeds that she was not just manipulating characters, but the entire course of history. The Coldest War is really all about Gretel and her machinations. Even her own brother fears her and has no idea what her real plan is, while Will and Marsh try futilely to outguess someone who always knows what you're going to do before you do.
The plotting really shines in this book, because Tregillis handles all the complications of a character who knows the future (a problem just like time travel) without ever seeming to cheat or introduce paradoxes. Gretel's game of Xanatos Roulette is brilliant and convincing. While I did see the revelation at the end coming, it was still a great big "Oh. Shit."
That said, I am waiting to be convinced by the device with which Tregillis seems to be maneuvering himself out of the corner into which he's written himself.
Have you read The Coldest War?
Did you read Bitter Seeds?
Verdict: A great sequel, and a book that makes me eager to finish the trilogy. Mixing superpowers, magic, and alternate history in a very grim world of 1963, The Coldest War is a fast-paced bombshell of an adventure not afraid to threaten to destroy the world.
Also by Ian Tregillis: My review of Bitter Seeds.
My complete list of book reviews.