Tinker, Taylor, Warlock, Spy

Blending consensus historical events and personages with imaginary occult forces is a strong recipe for counterfactual storytelling goodness that combines the best of two worlds: resonant history with wild-eyed fantasy. The formula has worked for Mike Mignola’s Hellboy franchise, as well as Charles Stross’s Laundry series. Ian Tregellis’s Milkweed Triptych is the latest such hybrid, zestily offering a suspenseful take on history rerouted by the uncanny.
The first volume, Bitter Seeds, features a prologue set in 1920, but our tale begins in earnest in 1939, with creepy revelations concerning a band of Nazi superhumans engineered by demented genius Dr. von Westarp, who is rather like an evil version of the X-Men‘s Dr. Xavier. And in fact his team strikes one as a band of badass amoral mutants, particularly the seeress Gretel, the saga’s unnatural pivot. Arrayed against them on the British side is Operation Milkweed, a four-man bureau given little support and credence by a nation fixated on more conventional warfare as the Germans roll across France. Luckily, our hero, the James Bond–ish Raybould “Pip” Marsh, is complemented by his pal, Lord William Beauclerk, who happens to be descended from a long line of warlocks who can call on the Eidolons, savage Lovecraftian entities. The war exacts enormous and cruel payments from the two men, but their efforts save the day. And yet, some of the Nazi superhumans survive, under Soviet aegis….
And so we come to The Coldest War, following a big jump of some twenty years. Will and Raybould — both severely damaged men and now at odds — are dragged back into Britain’s Cold War struggles with the USSR by the defection from Soviet embrace of Gretel and her brother Klaus. Again, the warlocks are brought into play — a new generation of Midwich Cuckoo–style youngsters. After much supernatural espionage cat-and-mousing in a timeline whose similarities and differences to ours Tregellis brilliantly limns, a literal Armageddon descends, courtesy of the Eidolons, and Raybould Marsh finds himself hurled back to the year 1940, on a last-ditch mission to undo all his sins, and those of his country.
Arriving at Necessary Evil, the newly released conclusion to the Milkweed Triptych‘s long, brutal, astonishing arc, the reader finds that Tregellis pulling off a very satisfying multivalent hat trick worthy of Rashomon or Heinlein’s ” — All You Zombies– .” Cleverly switching to first-person for the sections of the tale narrated by fifty-three-year-old time-traveling Raybould, Tregellis reruns the events of Bitter Seeds along increasingly divergent and unpredictable rails, producing a final installment that recalls both Christopher Priest’s The Separation and some unwritten surreal, pathos-rich mind-blower from Philip K. Dick.

The Speculator

Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review.  He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.