At the end of Charles Stross' first novel mashing up Len Deighton and Lovecraft (The Atrocity Archives
) there is a gorgeous essay, "Inside the Fear Factory"--the kind of freeform whipsmart critical game that almost (or, for me, definitely) overshadows the fiction that came before it. Stross lays out a careful explication of the search for deep Forces behind all actions, of Beings behind the everyday shaping not just action but woven into the fabric of the System, a deeper darker Reality behind it all. . . and this occult worldview is Cold War paranoia. Meanwhile, the constant reading of texts, the careful decoding of messages and signs, the drudgery of the day-to-day demystification of what is going on (to reveal how various powers are struggling for control) . . . this intelligence worldview informs the Lovecraftian mythos. It's a dazzling bit of mirrorplay. Alas, these Bob Howard novels never really took off for me; the brilliance of Stross' conceptual fireworks fizzled in narratives that felt more like pastiche.
Tregillis' novel, at its best, doesn't just tease out a high-concept pitch but breathes and burns with a passionate exploration of such ideas. It's a dark alternate history of WWII which literalizes Aryan-Ubermensch ideology in a secret unit creating superpowers, and frames the bleak arts of intelligence as (a la Stross) dark occultation. I was thoroughly taken up by the implications of his mythology, particularly the careful explication of his Eidolons (and the British warlocks--nice touch, using that term--seeking to shape these Beings' investments in the war effort). I also adored the horror of his antiheroine Gretel, the Nazi precog whose manipulations kept throwing me off-kilter, reshaping how I thought of the novel.
Tregillis lays out a helluva rich world to explore, and leaves us readers hanging. Along the way, he riffs, jams, revels--reveals many alluring wrinkles to his counter-War. And the action sequences zip; an early scene with a mortar bombing was a masterly bit of cinematic prose.
But ... it felt a lot, too much at times, like Origin story. Lots of setting the stage, a bit too much drag trying to establish the rules and the players. Early on, especially, I felt moments where the expository clause got a little too much of a workout. And I found the central characters a bit thin--Marsh's wife Liz is an addendum; Marsh, too, is too Hero for me.
But next episode, eh? I recommend this quite strongly, and I'm certain that it's only the running start--already illustrative of a great talent, but where it seems to be going (leaping, flying). . . .