Bitter Seeds is one of those books that is hard to quantify; in the simplest of terms it is alternative-history fiction based around the period encompassing the Spanish Revolution and the Second World War, redolent with ‘what-ifs’ and ‘if-onlys’. But beneath that surface description dwells a novel of complexity and deviation rarely seen in this genre.

Structurally speaking, Bitter Seeds is easy to follow. During the course of the book the location and narrative voice jumps between three separate characters that each have a rather broad perspective, but this mass of information has been written so artfully as to not disorient. The opportunity to see the book from both points of view of such an incredible conflict blurs the line that usually separates protagonist from antagonist, providing the reader with an opportunity to decide for themselves where their loyalties lie.

The story itself is infinitely more complex. It sets the scene in rural Germany in the 1920’s where several orphans dislocated from society by the first world war are adopted into the Children’s Home for Human enlightenment – an obvious cover for the inhumane medical experiments perpetrated during the period, introducing several of the important characters of the novel. Crossing the English Channel during the same period, the same day in point of fact, introduces the other two main characters and their origins; one, a poor scrounging child taken on by a disabled ex-pilot and groomed as a member of the Secret Service, the other the child of a wealthy lord introduced by his grandfather into mystic goings-on that are destined to change the course of humanity.

As the novel progresses, it depicts the progress of the war at many of the great turning points, this time though things are substantially different. The Nazi party has an incredible new weapon they describe as the Übermensch -Supermen-, men and women with abilities gifted through the aid of horrific medical experiments. Whereas the United Kingdom have a small group of warlocks; isolated men involved in blood pacts with beings that will only be content when humans are eradicated from existence.

From the beginning, it is difficult to tell who is pulling the strings in this tale. From the outside, it appears as if those calling the shots are the ones in charge, but as the story progresses it becomes more obvious that someone with far more vision is directing the war on both sides. And as every heinous act is perpetrated, by both sides of the Channel, the sheer deviousness of the plan is slowly revealed. What follows is an inevitable game of cat and mouse that is played with entirely different rules.

This is not a tale to be told in one book. Bitter Seeds is only the first book in this triptych, with the future volumes promising to expose more of the desperation and malice inherent in such a topic. And considering the high quality of the storytelling, the complexity of narrative, and general ‘can’t put it down’ nature of the book, it’s one to get stuck into just so you can get to the end. Be warned though; there is plenty of content that is easily described as distasteful, but the context makes every nuance and horrific element crucial to the story.


This is about my fourth year attending the Logan Library SF Month finale day. It’s always a fun time and has grown enourmously in the last few years. Here are the details for the upcoming panel. Hope to see some of you there!

MDP: We don’t review books as a rule on the main site (here!) but occasionally a book comes along that I’m keen to give some air-time. I’ve long been a fan of Kim Westwood’s writing – and Mandy Wrangles has written a through appraisal of her new book. Enjoy!

 

The Courier’s New Bicycle – Kim Westwood’s second novel – is provocative and, at times, confronting. It’s a glimpse into a not-so-impossible near future, thrusting the reader into a world that’s so familiar, and so real it’s unsettling.

Salisbury Forth is a bicycle courier in post-pandemic Melbourne. After the government rolled out a flu-vaccine to a panicked public, an unexpected side-effect screws with hormone levels and leaves most of the population infertile and desperate for cures. The religious party ‘Nation First’ has been voted into power, prohibiting ‘unnatural practices’ including gene therapy, hormone replacement and surrogacy. The only cure they condone for the return of family is prayer. Salisbury delivers ethical hormone treatments for her boss, Gail, who has been forced to move her business underground – a dangerous occupation that could get Sal killed at any time.

But delivering contraband isn’t Sal’s only reason to beware the religious zealots and vigilante groups operating under the guise of the law. Sal is a sexual transgressor, androgynous and prefers women as her sexual partners. Her very existence has become illegal.

When a batch of deadly, tainted hormones packaged as Gail’s makes its way onto the street, Sal is charged with finding out who is behind the plot to wipe out her boss’s business. Is it someone wanting to take over Gail’s lucrative patch, or are there even more sinister motives behind the pesticide-enhanced kit circulating the streets with Gail’s stamp on them?

The Courier’s New Bicycle has it all. Page flipping pace, almost as fast as Sal’s bike itself, this is a story that will not only make you pause and ponder your own ethical standards and acceptance of government policies, but it’s beautifully and sparsely crafted:

‘I am a machine, legs and lungs pumping, body tucked flat and low, eyes on the route ahead. Speeding along the city streets, a shadow with lights and reflectors flashing, a savage joy ripples through me. Adrenaline courses, quicksilver, in muscles and ligaments, joints and skin, and I feel nothing of the cold, the dark, the jolting surfaces…’

As a Melbourne native, I particularly found Westwood’s use of the city as a backdrop fun and enlightening. Some of the city’s landmarks and streets have retained their original names and appearance, yet others, though still recognisable have been renamed in accordance with the country’s new religious obsession. Westwood has rebuilt Melbourne as a dark and dangerous place, while losing none of its gothic beauty along the way. Prayer groups huddle under sparse streetlights, and the wealthy financial districts have morphed into safe places for brothels and surrogacy teams.

This is a gritty story that brings bare-bones emotion to the fore. One particular scene early in the book, where Sal takes part in a clandestine animal rescue operation was so raw and graphic, was almost too difficult to keep reading. However this scene is pivotal to not only the story and its conclusion, but also in the way we get to know Sal and her ethical standards and beliefs. She is a character of immense backbone, willing to put her own safety on the line to stand by what she knows is right.

Westwood’s darkness is sprinkled with moments of humour – I particularly loved Sal’s cat, the purple glow-in-the-dark Nitro; just like Sal herself, his existence has been outlawed by moralistic bigots too frightened to think for themselves. There were also moments of true friendship and loyalty so tender, it felt as though I was intruding on private conversations and thoughts.

The Courier’s New Bicycle is not what I would label as an easy read, purely for the subject matter. While Westwood’s word craft is stunning, the reader is shocked over and over again by the feasibility of a near future just like this one. This is a story that will – and should – stay with you long after the last page is read, as commentary on a society that just may well be where we’re heading.

Published by Harper Voyager.

Paperback, 327 pages.

ISBN – 978 0 7322 8988 1

 

Awards

davitt-award  aurealis-award   logo-curtin-university

Peacemaker - Aurealis Award
Best Science Fiction Novel 2014

Curtin University Distinguished Alumni Award 2014

Transformation Space - Aurealis Award
 Best Science Fiction Novel 2010

Sharp Shooter - Davitt Award
Best Crime Novel 2009 (Sisters in Crime Australia) 

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