Ian Tregillis‘ Milkweed Triptych is a saga of alternate history, superpowers and Nazis. It focuses on that defining era of the previous century, World War Two, and it weaves a convoluted tale of politics, ambition and the human penchant for evil. If you enjoy any of the the above you might enjoy the series, but if you like them all it’s required reading.
A quick definition: Alternate history is an exercise in world building where you take the established time line and change one thing, be it major or minor, and then wonder how that would make a difference in the resulting historical events. Most alternate history looks at what would have changed immediately after the break with established history is made but sometimes changes are made in the far past but the alternate history narrative still looks at the society that would result in the ‘modern’ era, which is to say at whatever time period the author was living in.
Milkweed belongs to the first category, and it begins with the idea that the Nazis had real, working übermensch with psychic powers at their disposal starting about the time of the Spanish civil war. While these psychics are still highly experimental, they’re dangerous enough that Great Britain becomes concerned when word of their existence leaks out.
In their attempts to learn how the psychics work British Intelligence winds up consulting one of the last English warlocks in existence. A rather foppish young man and good friend of one Raybould Marsh, spy, Lord William was taught the language and dangers of negotiating with Eidolons by his grandfather. Since negotiating with powerful beings of alien nature with cosmically horrific overtones drove Will’s grandfather to becoming an awful drunk, Will himself has ignored the art for many years. There’s also the little fact that the Eidolons are bent on the extinction of humanity and tend to demand payment for their favors in the form of violence and murder.
Never the less, Marsh and his superiors quickly decide that, if Britain is going to stop the German supermen, Eidolons are the only option available. What results is a horrifying series of atrocities on both sides of the conflict. The first book in the series, Bitter Seeds, lives up to its title as men rack up the lives of other men as counting chips. Coldest War brings the butcher’s bill due, and Marsh and William have to face what their earlier actions have wrought.
But anyone could write a series of devastating failures and ideologically motivated missteps. What makes Project Milkweed really shine is the third book, Necessary Evil. After all the wrongs done, Raybould Marsh is given a chance to make things right. And he does it, not by taking the price from others without their consent but by freely sacrificing many of the things he had been willing to murder for. In the end, it will take more than cleverness or power to carry the day. It will take strength of character. Marsh finds it, although he pays a horrible cost.
While I highly recommend Project Milkweed be warned that, since it focuses on a very dark period of history, some of the things that happen in it are dark as well. In particular, a lot of time is spent in the Nazi’s human augmentation research program. While what is described there pales in comparison to some of the real experiments that the Nazi’s ran in concentration camps, and the books never go into gruesome details, it may not be your cup of tea. Also, the use of human lives as fuel for arcane rites is more than a little disturbing.
If you don’t want to hear about those things, then avoid Project Milkweed. But if you’re okay with reading about how sometimes it’s darkest before dawn, then that alone may mean Milkweed is right for you.