Ian Tregillis, Tor, 2010, $25.99/C$31, 352pp, 978-0-7653-2150-3
It is 1939 and the British are preparing for war – and against invasion by Nazi Germany. Raybould Marsh, a British secret agent, has learned that the Nazis have a secret weapon – a group of supermen and women who can do the impossible: walk through walls, fly, and seemingly predict the future. At the direction of his boss and longtime mentor John Stephenson, Marsh calls on the services of his old college friend Lord William Beauclerk, who also has strange powers of his own – the ability to call on, and corral the power of, potentially evil natural forces.
Both sides use their secret weapons to change the very nature of the war – the Germans, who have created their small cohort of human weapons using brain surgery, batteries, and willpower, and the British, using warlocks and increasingly horrifying blood oaths.
In this supernatural alternative history, the difference between "natural" and "unnatural" magic is suggested. And while at first the "natural" (British) is positioned as somehow more appropriate, the cost and the effect is more than they bargained for. The book is often very brutal, and the violence is matter-of-fact and unflinching. The "supermen" are absolutely gruesome – but then, so are the warlocks, and even more so, the leaders on both sides.
The pacing is good, and the plotting is excellent. The historical detail is well done and feels natural, and there are fantastic turns of phrase throughout. However, it felt like it wasn't quite sure where or how it wanted to close and stuttered to a stop. Given the increasing levels of violence, sacrifice, and Machiavellian scheming, the ending is unsurprisingly grim.
A very original idea, well executed. Recommended.