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The Coldest War by Ian Tregillis
Cover Artist: Chris McGrath
Review by Drew Bittner
Tor Books Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765321510
Date: 17 July 2012 List Price $25.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Author's Website / Show Official Info /

Twenty years ago, the Nazis almost won. They swept the RAF from the skies, bombed radar installations and pounded London flat, while a small group of battery-powered freaks deployed powers unseen outside of a comic book. Britain fought back by invoking demonic powers and making dreadful pacts--and ended the war with a devastating winter.

Now the Soviets have their hands on that Nazi technology...and the fate of the world rests in the hands of one girl with a terrible ability to see the future.

In The Coldest War, Ian Tregillis continues his Milkweed Triptych, begun in Bitter Seeds, by jumping forward a bit in time. Nazi Germany has been defeated, but the work of Dr. von Westarp and the Gotterelektrongruppe lives on in the Soviet Union. With electrodes inserted to stimulate dormant superpowers, Soviet agents are roaming Britain, killing off the wizards who made Britain's victory possible.

When the Kremlin is ready to launch its own invasion, it will not be stopped by demonic forces.

The precognitive Gretel, whose machinations were very much responsible for Germany's fall, has gotten herself and her brother Klaus out of Soviet hands and to London, where she means to contact Raybould Marsh. Once an agent of the British government, Marsh is now a bitter man, trapped in a marriage that is not only loveless but miserable, with an autistic son who might have been damaged by the very thing that saved England. He is naturally not inclined to help Gretel, whom he blames for the death of his daughter, Agnes.

Meanwhile, William Beauclerk--the man who brought the blessing and curse of sorcery to Britain's defense--is scarcely less miserable. Although he is comfortable and secure with his wife, his brother Aubrey's political machinations to befriend the Soviets make him uneasy. Even so, he carries a dark secret; he knows the true cost of Britain's salvation.

As Gretel works her plans, snaring Marsh once again and reactivating the Milkweed operation (the group that collaborated to make sense of wizardry and demon-summoning), the consequences of Beauclerk's deeds become manifest. Even worse, a devastating betrayal from within has given the Soviets all that they need to secure victory over the British Empire.

Along the way, Gretel and Klaus reunite with Reinhardt, the fire-casting hothead from their old team, and set him on a path that might possibly restore his abilities. They'll need him for the battle to come, when the remnants of Nazi science are key to saving the world from Britain's mistake.

Tregillis has created a masterful second act to this story, moving his characters in fascinating ways along a chronicle that remains tantalizingly fluid. Gretel's power, her ability to set up events and foresee needs decades in advance, means that the entire plot of this story is as intricate a structure as any author is willing to attempt--her acts in the first book begin to pay off here, with the promise of more to come.

That everything comes down to Marsh and one desperate chance is no mistake, either. Tregillis's hero has been ground down by time and love long since curdled into hatred and contempt; he has little to give his country and world, but is induced to rise to the challenge. If he does, something might be salvaged from this entire mess, something he considers impossible. But Marsh's faith is essential, and Tregillis makes the anguish of his choices palpable.

Gretel may be the most fascinating character in the story. At once villain and hero, she has caused--directly or not--the deaths of many in the storyline. Her visions both helped and crippled Nazi Germany and the British Empire, as well as ensuring the destruction of many of her fellow Gotterelektrongruppe soldiers. Her choices here are baffling, and in less confident hands could well have been frustrating for the reader, but Tregillis keeps her in a strange space of utter certainty and infallibility. Even her brother Klaus, who can turn intangible, has largely given up trying to understand her and simply follows her instructions.

A broken man amid fabulous wealth and power, William Beauclerk has redeemed his debauched and dissolute image from the war years, but he carries nightmarish horrors in his soul. The price for Britain's protection weighs on him like monstrous chains and his inexorable erosion within is chilling. Although his role is not finished, it remains to be seen if he can truly do what needs to be done.

Lastly, the reader starts to get a better understanding of the Lovecraftian Eidolons, their motives and goals... and why Britain might have been better off under Nazi occupation.

Tregillis has constructed an epic of alternate history, mingling superhumans with sorcery and coming up with something that is compelling, resonant and indefinable. Truly a great work, it has something for everyone.

Highly recommended.

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