Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis is an interesting mix of magic, demonology and alternate history. Knowing that Hitler was extremely interested in magic and the occult, it makes an great choice to put this story in WW II. The book also has an interesting take on magic, but there are some frustrations in the book as well. So, does the book work or not?
Years ago a mad scientist in Germany took orphans and put them through experiments that ended up giving some of the survivors magical/superpowers. There was one person who could fly, one person who could become invisible, one person who could walk through walls and Gretel, who could see all the possible futures and take actions to makes sure the future she wanted would happen. But their power is controlled by wires in their head which are linked to batteries. When the battery runs out, then the powers are gone (until the battery is recharged). During the Nazi regime, these superpowered people were used to help make the war effort. So, early in the war, the Nazis had pushed through France and into Spain. There someone associated with the project tried to escape and sell the secrets to the English in exchange for helping him escape. Secret agent Raybould Marsh is sent to bring him back to England. But when Marsh sees him breaking the protocol, he is worried, then when he bursts into flames, Marsh grabs whatever records he can and escapes. What he does bring back worries the English government to no end.
Enter Will Beauclerk is the younger brother in a prestigious family. His grandfather chose him to pass on special knowledge, how to do magic. Magic doesn’t involve complicated spells or wands. It involves blood, a special language and negotiations with creatures that are outside our laws of physics who can actually do the magic (or change the laws of physics in certain ways). The book progresses with Will and Marsh up against Gretel and the band of superpowered Germans. Will and other English warlocks are forced to push more and more against their morals as the price for the magic significantly increases. And the Germans have to deal with Gretel who might be on their side or might be on her own side.
The book has some interesting ideas and is fairly well written, but there are parts that feel rushed. We never get a good sense of how the Germans powers work or really what the scientist did to get the powers activated. And while Gretel and her brother Klaus are the main focus for us on the German side, we don’t really get to know either of them. On the English side, we really only focus on Will and Marsh and when they are cut out of some of the planning, things happen off screen that confuse the reader. The biggest issue I had with the book is the timeframe. The actual time of the war seems greatly compressed, especially near the end. Even the non magical armies seem to be moving much faster than they should have been. There is an effort to hand-wave it by talking about how the magic helped do it. But it still seems rushed.
Overall it’s a good read with some interesting ideas. There are some weaknesses in it. But overall I would recommend it.