This review contains spoilers for book one, Bitter Seeds
This is one epic, high-stakes alt-history series. After reading Bitter Seeds
, I thought book two would pick up where book one left off, at a turning point in World War II. Instead, it skips forward two decades and we're now in 1963 and the height of the Cold War.
But it's a very different Cold War. In Bitter Seeds
, Britain unleashed the power of the Eidolons, vastly powerful demonic beings who live in the cracks in time and space, in order to stop the Third Reich and their supermen. When we last saw Klaus and Gretel, two of those Nazi supersoldiers, they had been captured by Soviet troops.The Coldest War
begins twenty-two years later. Britain won the war, but at a horrific cost. While the nation has completely bought into the myth of "Britain's finest hour" and how the brave people of England beat back the Nazi hordes with sheer determination, people like Raybould Marsh and William Beauclerk know better. Britain beat back the Nazi hordes by sacrificing thousands of innocent people to pay the Eidolons' blood prices. Following the collapse of the Third Reich, the USSR spread uncontested across Europe and now controls the entire continent.
Now the Soviets are trying to kill off Britain's warlocks while preparing to take over the world with their own army of supermen. If Britain can no longer summon Eidolons, nothing will stop the USSR from swallowing the last bit of independent Europe.
(Where is the U.S. in all this? Pretty much off-stage. Nixon is President and there are mentions of race riots, but Americans apparently played no part in World War II and play no part in this book.)
The alternate history here is interesting, and the book is rife with moral dilemmas. Pretty much everyone does horrible things for what they perceive to be the greater good; some have an easier time living with their conscience than others.
Ironically, Klaus, the former Nazi assassin (though he was never really a Nazi, just a tool raised and used by the Nazis) is one of the most sympathetic characters. He realizes he just wants the "normal" life he's never had, and is willing to engage in heroics to get it.
But his sister, Gretel, is the dark heart of this book. Gretel is a mad genius who can see the future, with an accuracy that verges on omniscience. No matter what anyone does, it turns out to be something Gretel planned. So the big question looming over the course of the last two books has been: what is Gretel's long game? She let Germany lose the war, she let herself and her brother be captured by the Soviets, and it looks like she's going to let the world end.
At the very end of this book, we find out what Gretel's game has been, and the pieces on the board get rearranged in a big way. I am ambivalent about what to expect from the next book: in a way it seems like a cheat. But this is a brilliantly plotted story arc, with elements of alternate history, time travel, and of course, "superhero" battles and eldritch horrors. Characterization gets more attention in this book, but the action is still fast-paced and violent.
4.5 stars: highly recommended. Sci-fi/fantasy adventure with spies, super-soldiers, warlocks and demons in a grim alternate history.