Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Super Villains' Reunion

23. The Coldest War by Ian Tregellis

Why did Tor send me the sequel to a book I had never read? I pondered this as I sadly prepared to set the book aside in favor of something I was better qualified to review.

But that book just sitting there next to my desk, with its dark doomsday cover, was haunting me. So I cracked it open. And the opening line, "Warlocks do not age gracefully," caught me.

I read on.

The next page had a paragraph stuffed full of the kind of sensory imagery I longed to share with my then-class of kids, who seemed to have a hard time explaining senses other than sight and using words other than "wonderful," "awesome," and, the term they were particularly self-satisfied with, "epic."

Ian Tregellis is Elizabeth Bear writing a Steampunk version of X-Men.

Except his best characters are not the good guys. Tregellis brings to life the Magnetos, the Mystiques, the Juggernauts. His hero could be any old Sherlock Holmes, but his prime super-villain, Gretel, has the aura of the Wicked Witch of the West, the single-mindedness of the Borg Queen, and the capacity for evil of Adolf Hitler himself.

There's no way I could not write about this book. It absolutely works as a standalone novel, although I intend to finish the forerunner, Bitter Seeds, soon (I have already begun it), and will be reading the third in the Milkweed Trilogy, Necessary Evil, when it comes out.

The book reads like a super-villains' reunion. Gretel and brother Klaus, who can walk through walls, escape from Soviet prison to England, the single haven in a Europe conquered first by Nazis, then Communists. There, they meet fellow survivor of the Nazi Reichsbehörde experiments, Reinhardt, former human flamethrower, now reduced to the role of neighborhood Junkman. Reinhardt has spent a decade trying to recapture the Götterelektron, which soaring through wires in their brains, enables their superpowers. They were defeated only by the terrible magic of British warlocks, who summoned demons called Eidolons to bring them down, for the price of human blood.

The juxtaposition of the Nazi technology and the British magic creates a startling comparison between these vehicles of science fiction and fantasy, respectively. Both are defined by willpower. The Eidolons are demons of pure willpower, while the Götterelektron allows the Reichsbehörde cohort to access their Willenskrӓfte (willpower). This is no battle between good and evil; Tregillis is not interested in easy divisions. Each side has paid an unspeakable price in crimes against humanity. While Britain won the war, it lost its soul in the process; a reality chillingly symbolized in the body of a soulless young man.

The precarious post-bellum existence that Tregillis evokes has its few bright spots as well. William Beauclerk, a dashing marplot, and his wife the Lady Gwendolyn, imbue the novel with precious moments of sparkling dialogue. Not quite either a hero or villain, Will’s missteps are far more intriguing than ostensible hero Raybould Marsh’s glum loyalty to Queen and Country. Of the reunited Nazis, not all are as convincingly and uniquely evil as Gretel and Reinhardt. Klaus, for the first time in his life, will embark on a journey that will not include his “raven-haired demon” of a sister.

The Coldest War is a classic second novel, overplaying its villains and leaving its hero in a tight spot. I'll admit I was disappointed with the plotting in comparison to Tregellis' remarkable skills in wordplay and character development, but I still wouldn't miss anything farther from him. The Milkweed trilogy is his first solo venture in publishing, he's also a writer for George R.R. Martin's Wildcards anthologies. I, for one, am hoping he'll step out more often.

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