Everyone got your blankie? Good. You're going to need it. Because Ian Tregillis is not going to do the flinching for you; you will have to flinch yourself. This much-anticipated sequel to Bitter Seeds follows through on ramifications, and if you think back to some of the plot points in Bitter Seeds, those ramifications are not what we call warm fuzzy nice-nice. The dog was peering anxiously at me as I curled up tighter and tighter reading this book: monkey? are you okay, monkey?
And not really, no. I was not okay. But it was an awesome and expected kind of not-okay. We love implications and ramifications! Even when they're horrific and depressing. Honestly, do not start with this book. Don't. The characters, the plot: I really feel that they rely on you having read Bitter Seeds first. But they make it worth your time with the emotional investment. This is not just a matter of knowing what's going on, it's a matter of having what the characters have become twenty-some years down the line mean something.
There is a jacket blurb from Booklist that says, "Bitter Seeds may rival Naomi Novik's Tales of Temeraire as a sustained historical fantasy." And I gaped at that quote in horrified awe. Basically, all the adjectives I can think of for the Temeraire series are opposite in this series. They have none of the same virtues at all. They are both historical fantasy. But "sustained" is a misleading word, because Naomi Novik's books are sustained historical fantasy in that they go on for quite some time, and Ian Tregillis's are sustained in that they will bear up under pressure. You can poke at them and they will not immediately fall to bits when you ask, "But wait, why is such-and-such still the same when--" because such-and-such is not still the same. He is not romping along playing the, "Look, it's someone you recognize! Haha, isn't history a lark!" game. And don't get me wrong, I like romps and larks. I just also like having things around that are not romps and are not larks, particularly when someone is doing an alternate history. The implications of having Stalinist Russia as one of the major forces opposing the Nazis should get grim in a lot of the possible alternatives.
The Coldest War is very much a middle book, and I'll be eager to see how Tregillis brings things around in the third book of the series. There were glimmers of possible redemption amidst the dark here, but I'm not actually sure whether that's the direction he'll take it. And in this case I like not knowing.