The Milkweed Triptych by Ian Tregillis

Ian Tregills’s Milkweed Triptych, Bitter Seeds, The Coldest War, and Necessary Evil are a compelling alternate history adventure. They start before the second world war, with a Nazi scientist who is experimenting on children to give them incredible powers. British intelligence’s response to this is Milkweed. It starts as a simple operation, but then spy Raybould Marsh (our central protagonist throughout the series) brings in his school friend, Lord William Beauclerk, who knows something about the supernatural. Will introduces Milkweed to the world of Warlocks, grumpy old men who speak an ur language, negotiating blood sacrifices with other worldly beings to have their will done. Things happen — excitement, adventure, magic, etc.

There’s really good worldbuilding. The rules made sense, but the story never felt overwhelmed by exposition. It was cool how there are two different sorts of supernatural/sci-fi elements going on at the same time.

Balancing Marsh and Will’s perspectives, the book includes the German precog, Gretel, and her brother Klaus, who can walk through walls. Tregillis does a fantastic Klaus a sympathetic character by showing all of the different ways he is being manipulated. More of my enjoyment in these books comes from the plotting and worldbuilding, but there are solid character moments too.

The second book goes past world war two, into the cold war, an era I’ve rarely seen dealt with in alternative histories. It moves the story away from battlefields, and into more subtle political conflicts. Seeing a spin on this time period was fun, and I’d be interested in seeing other takes on it.

I don’t want to spoil the twist at the end of the second volume that sets up the third book, but trust me, it’s a doozy. A friend of mine gave up on the books halfway through the second, and I can see why someone would — things get dark, and it doesn’t seem like any sort of satisfying ending is possible. But then Tregillis manages to do something very smart and exciting to set the story off on in a new direction. I’m going to talk to her about it, and try to convince her to give them a second try because it really does pay off in the end.

There are times where it definitely edges close to the line of being bleak and compelling and tragic vs just being bleak for the sake of being bleak and gritty. Overall I think it works, but there were moments as I was reading where I wasn’t sure if I could go with it, especially in the first book, but as I understood more I started to trust the author.
Overall, a fantastically captivating read. I finished the first book and immediately had to track down the sequels. Definitely worth checking out if you’re into this sort of thing.

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