In a very-alternate history World War II, a German mad scientist has produced an elite squad of supermen. Rigged with batteries and wires, these young adults have various preternatural abilities: the ability to turn incorporeal, a prescient knowledge of the future, the power of telekinesis, and more. When a British spy uncovers evidence of the Germans’ new human weapons, the British, in a combination of self-defense and retaliation, call upon several warlocks with connections to the Eidolons, a group of demonic entities with seemingly limitless powers. The Eidolons will assist the British…for a price. And so begins a World War II very different from the one recorded in the history books.
The outline above would lend itself rather well to an action-adventure novel, but this book is not that. (All you have to do is look at a picture of the cover and you’ll be able to tell that much.) Instead, it’s a harrowing psychological horror novel: a portrait of the dangers attendant upon the acquisition of power, and the inevitable corruption that results. The German übermenschen – who are the few surviving results of extensive child experimentation – have long ago had all sense of right and wrong driven out of them by the cruelties of their ‘creator’; they do what they must to survive, obey orders, and in the process commit atrocities. On the other side of the Channel, the British secret agents involved in the ‘employment’ of Eidolons find themselves caught in a spiral of escalating demands, committing mass murder in order to satisfy the malevolent demons’ desire for blood payment.
There’s no denying that Tregillis is an excellent writer. He brings his setting to grim life. He relies less on graphic descriptions and more on well-placed disturbing details to ensure that we fully grasp the horrors of the outcomes engendered by the characters’ obsession with power. But the story left me with no characters to root for. At first, I feared the author would condone the British characters’ involvement with obviously demonic powers in fighting the war. Eventually I realized that these powers – and especially the effect they have on the characters who employ them – are meant to be seen as horrifyingly evil (though, since there was no way for the British to defeat the Nazis without them, perhaps the author considers them a necessary evil?). But even so, with all the characters descending to ever further levels of hopelessness and depravity, there wasn’t much to like about any of them. All three main characters (one German, two British) eventually realize, at some level, that they have committed unthinkable wrongs, but they are all caught up in events and situations beyond their ability to escape. The most they can do is the smallest acts of resistance – enough to keep a tenuous grip on their humanity, but no more. In the end, two of the characters each overcome a driving force for evil in their respective lives, but further evil, it is implied, is coming inexorably toward them.
In a way, the book is a war fable for our era, in which the prices to be paid for victory are always horrifyingly high, with the ultimate price being the humanity of the persons involved. It certainly comes across as deeply anti-war. In the recent trend toward ‘gritty’ speculative fiction, this novel is doubtless going to prove a standout; I expect to see it on all sorts of award nomination lists in 2011. Yet I don’t think I’ll be reading the sequel which the ending clearly implies will be coming soon. I found myself caught up in the story, yes, but in the end this dark, gritty story did not offer enough hope to make it appealing. I can tell that the characters’ precarious grips on their humanity (and sanity) will be tested even further in the story’s continuation, and I don’t think I want to know where they will end up.
Content warning: In addition to lots of bad language, the book contains many scenes of violence, most of which are perhaps more disturbing for being less graphic, as our minds fill in the horrifying details. A few bits of violence are described vividly. There is also an implied instance of necrophilia. An extremely dark tone tinges everything about the story.