25. Necessary Evil by Ian Tregellis
Publisher: Tor Release Date: April 2013
Ian Tregellis is one of my favorite new authors. The Coldest War hooked me with the first line, "Wizards do not age gracefully." The final book in the triptych, Necessary Evil, is no slouch either for poignant turns of phrase. The protagonist, given his own voice for the first time, summarizes the book poetically; "Who was I but a scarred and sweaty madman railing against the woman who twirled history around her fingers like so much yarn?"
That woman, the "raven-haired demon," the "witch" with "wires in her braids," is Gretel, and she is not only the most fascinating character in Tregellis' triptych, but one of the most compelling villains in fiction. From the first time I learned of her incredible ability to read the future (more accurately, the lines of possible futures) and to shift it one way or another, I wanted to know more. In Necessary Evil, Tregellis satisfies that urge. He begins with a Prologue from Gretel's point of view, "She is five years old when the poor farmer sells her to the mad doctor." It's a story that was traced in the first book, Bitter Seeds, but Gretel's viewpoint makes it particularly creepy. With Gretel's power comes the obligatory discussion of free will, which Tregellis addresses with nuance, but also with flippance. When the old familiar British detective, Raybould Marsh, asks Gretel how her power doesn't negate the existence of free will, she nonchalantly replies, "I have free will." I almost regret though that this book makes clear that Gretel is a clinical psychopath. She's classically selfish and manipulative, with no regard even for the life of a brother who adores her. She was so more interesting when there was the possibility of more humanity in her. However, she does struggle in this book as she never has before and faces the only fear, the loss of her own control, that haunts a true psychopath.
At the end of The Coldest War, *SPOILER ALERT* the world is destroyed by the demonic Eidolons, but Gretel's machinations make it possible for Raybould Marsh to go back in time to the 1940s and create a new timeline where she and (graciously, she thinks) others don't end with the Eidolons. So in this book, instead of one boring British detective, there are two. I will confess, I was more fond of the jaded, scarred, older Marsh than his younger self and actually found him much more likable when given his own voice. The other books are written in third person limited from multiple points of view, but in this one the older Marsh speaks in first person and Gretel speaks in short first-person "interludes" as well. The novel is much more tightly focused on the two characters, which would be a helpful choice for a less skillful author. Tregellis, however, is capable of pulling off more and I missed the attention that the second book lavished on Will Beauclerk, the "guilty conscience" of Milkweed. Rather than a bumbling fool, Will comes off here as more of a genuinely moral compass, as he aids the time traveller Marsh in sabotaging the warlocks who won World War II (with the Eidolons' pernicious help) in "the original timeline."
The title of the book gets at the central question of the series, which is "How much evil is justified before good and evil become indistinguishable?" Tregellis leaves the answer fairly ambiguous. In the original timeline, Britain becomes as morally bankrupt as its enemies when it wins the war with debts paid in the blood of its own citizens. The second time around, Will and the older Marsh derail these "blood prices," at the cost of continuing a war that also takes its toll in blood. In order to ensure that the Eidolons will not destroy the world, all of the warlocks with knowledge of the Eidolons must be assassinated. In order to ensure before that that no one will resort to consorting with Eidolons, all the orphans installed with powers by the mad Doctor von Westarp must die. Not all of Gretel's siblings are naturally murderers or psychopaths like her, they are victims of the Doctor's experiments. But their otherworldly powers attract the interests of the military and Eidolons alike. (Sadly, Klaus, Gretel's biological brother and invisible man, and their frenemy, Reinhardt, the human salamander feature much less prominently in this book than the previous two.) Marsh tells himself that cooperating with Gretel is a "necessary evil," but Tregellis makes one wonder whether it isn't the nature of war, perhaps even the nature of humanity, to be evil despite itself. With two possible futures laid out in his books, it's difficult to tell, which one is more humane, or rather, less evil?
While I agree with other critics that the third volume in the Milkweed Triptych is "satisfying," I would say it didn't ultimately excite me as did The Coldest War. Tregellis has a fascinating cast of characters, a thrilling premise, and a virtuousic gift for language (though he's not immune to abusing his vocabulary, how many times does "chthonic" need to be used, really?), but something is missing in the execution of this last novel. The ending for the characters is too hum-drum for the whiplash pace and existential stakes of the series, and I find myself rooting for a future where Gretel's scheming days aren't finished.
Disclosure: Received for review from the publisher.