Last year, I read Mr Tregillis’ alternate history fantasy series The Alchemy Wars which was fun romp through a world where Dutch horologists discovered the secret to building clockwork automatons which made them the dominant power in the world while the French (with their metallurgical arts) fight a losing war against them.
Before Mr Tregillis wrote that, he wrote the Milkweed Triptych—a trio of books that can be best summed as an alternate history fantasy set in World War 2 where British warlocks who make Faustian contracts with Lovecraftian horrors square off against battery-powered psychic super-soldiers of the Third Reich. If that sounds appealing to you, you don’t really need to know much more before diving in.
However, if you need a bit of convincing: The story begins when a German Mengele-esque mad scientist adopted a bunch of children in the 1920’s to experiment on, to unlock what he believes to be the true potential of human capability and the few who survived form the Nazi’s secret corp of Übermenschen. They have a grab-bag of X-Men abilities: pyrokinesis, invisibility, the ability to phase through matter, and most interestingly, clairvoyance. One of them is Gretel, who is by far my favourite character in the trilogy. Mr Tregillis actually introduced Gretel in his short story What Doctor Gottlieb Saw (2010) which is still available on Tor.com, and it also serves as a very handy introduction to the Milkweed books as well. Gretel is a Romani orphan with the ability to see the future and potential timelines, and is able to nudge events to produce desired outcomes years or even decades later. It soon becomes obvious that her aims are her own, hidden in the black box of her mind. In spite of being functionally omniscient, she appears indifferent to her mistreatment and spends most of her time amusing herself by indulging in her eccentric interests. She is weird, surprisingly competent, and shunned by people who do not understand her. I would describe her as Luna Lovegood, if Luna is German. And a murderous sociopath.
On the other side is Raybould Marsh, a spy who serves the British side of the war (interestingly, one of the protagonists in Mr Tregillis’ Alchemy Wars is also a spy so maybe the author just likes tradecraft and espionage). And when Marsh uncovered the existence of Hitler’s Psychic Youths, he remembered his old friend William Beauclerk who had seemingly displayed unnatural abilities in their time in Oxford, and so got in contact with him to establish a British answer to the Nazi supermen. It’s a huge honking coincidence, but I’ll allow it. The author needed to set the board for the story he wanted to tell, and the sooner we have sorcerers join the fray, the better.
There are some hiccups in the writing, particularly in how the Scottish character James Lorimer was written (which is a caricature on par with Groundskeeper Willie from The Simpsons). Some of the dialogues between the British characters sound stilted and inauthentic, but they are not deal-breakers and Mr Tregillis certainly improved in subsequent books. It’s either that or I got habituated to his peculiarities. What I really enjoy about this series is the scope of the story which escalated a war between nations to something unthinkably large, with events in book 1 telescoping decades into the future with Cold War era conflicts playing out on a very different, alternate Europe. And beyond.
And there is also something I’d like to say regarding the character of John. While I applaud Mr Tregillis’ very brutal depiction of the difficulties of raising a special needs child and how potentially devastating it can be to a marriage, there is a bit of a mixed signal thrown in when the disability depicted resembles real life severe instances of autism. This is (hopefully) unintended but John being how he is because he doesn’t have a soul, and the fact that such hurtful things had actually been said of autistic individuals or individuals with similar syndromes… it’s not a good look, is what I am saying.
I also very much enjoy Mr Tregillis’ depiction of the Eidolons, which are the extra-dimensional timeless beings that the British warlocks consort with to perform magic on Earth.
The Eidolon spoke. Its voice was the thunder of creation and the silence of a lifeless universe.
I think this had always the appeal of Lovecraftian cosmic beings: they are, by definition, indescribably terrifying and you can use the most grandiloquent words to talk about them unironically. I think just on a rudimentary level, is shakes many of us to the very core to think that not only is there no benevolent god which cares for this universe but instead, the vastness of nothingness outside of our universe is teeming with godlike beings which are just as unimaginably immense and powerful; beings which intend to swat us out of existence like we would an ant or a mosquito, and are only prevented from doing so by the thinnest of restraints on them.
And Milkweed Tryptich is in a way, a critique of the disabling myopia of the human species. It rightly points out that we would happily commit atrocities; to doom ourselves to greater evils just to forestall smaller ones. We see this in our attitude towards anthropogenic climate change or more topically, our development of extinction-bearing nuclear armaments in our last World War. “Mutually assured destruction” is an actual military doctrine practiced by countries which have nukes. The end of the Cold War may have lifted this atomic Sword of Damocles further above our heads, but make no mistake, it’s still swinging over us all.
Now, Ian Tregillis didn’t write anything revolutionary. Neither did he introduce any new ideas to the discourse of war and humanity with these books of his. However, I was pleasantly surprised that a fantasy trilogy that is a pitched as a fight between magic and mad science would be willing to go as far as it did. Then again, the flip side of the Milkweed Tryptich is that no matter the odds, even when we face an enemy so inconceivably vast that our tiny minds would crumple like a wad of wet crepe paper should we be exposed to them, humans would go down swinging. This trilogy is a good read. Come for the pulpy sci-fi action. Stay for the dark and deep introspection into human nature—and for Gretel because somehow, she makes me shiver more than actual cosmic horrors.