History as a tool for storytelling can not only provide authors with a frame of reference for their tales, but can give them something to rewrite entirely. Ian Tregillis' Milkweed Triptych is more than just a reimagining of times past, it's an adventure that throws readers into the middle of the Cold War populated by demons and warlocks. In the series second, The Coldest War, warlocks maintain peace between Britain and the USSR, but when they start dying, Milkweed agents must discover who — or what — is to blame. With such a dark, captivating setting, we asked the author to share why he thought the Cold War was the perfect environment for his supernatural story.
The Coldest War is a ghoul. Outwardly, it wears the bloody skin of a trilogy's middle book; underneath, however, it's something else, nourished by devouring the bones of a former standalone novel.
When I first conceived the idea that eventually became the Milkweed Triptych, I envisioned a single novel set during the Cold War. Later, a group of very wise and accomplished friends convinced me the novel I had in mind was only the central volume of a much larger story. (And they were oh-so right. But that's a different tale.) Nevertheless, although the story outgrew its original sandbox, The Coldest War is built upon the foundation of my original idea.
My notes from those early days describe a novel inspired by Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy but blended with a liberal dose of blood magic. What if George Smiley had contended with demons? Actual demons of the supernatural kind, rather than metaphorical demons of the political or ideological kind? Strange as it may sound, this mashup strikes me as downright logical. The universe of John le Carré's very fine novels can be a gray and murky place, populated by characters who hold their motivations — and machinations — close to their chests. And, to my mind, it's exactly the kind of world that would contain warlocks: people capable of speaking to demons, whose esoteric knowledge of a dead language is the most potent weapon in the world. Wouldn't these agents, working secretly in service to the Crown, keep their secrets very closely indeed? And wouldn't the dubious morality of their blood magic be right at home in that shadowy Cold War setting?
But my urge to write an homage to Smiley and his world faced an insurmountable problem: I am not John le Carré. I could never hope to achieve the masterful storytelling, the sheer weight of narrative authority, that characterizes his novels. And so I cast the net more widely, looking to blend additional influences as I strived to formulate an original concoction of a world, its characters, and their story.
Thus the legend of Cincinnatus formed the second load-bearing column for the concept that eventually became The Coldest War. I'm endlessly fascinated by the notion of a man who witnessed and achieved great things in service to his country, but who turned his back on it all in favor of a simpler life. Particularly captivating is that moment of decision when the messengers find him toiling in his humble garden and plead with him to return to the service of his Empire. How does he weigh the needs of his nation against the needs of his soul? What tips the scales in his mind? Is it simple patriotism? Is it the need to salvage what he'd built? To redeem his past actions? Or has his garden become a prison?
But in a world containing demons and twisted superheroes, that return to the old life can only come at a steep cost. (My original notes describe the theme of this book as, "Cincinnatus Damned.") After all, the loss of oneself within a greater game of politics and patriotism goes hand-in-hand with "stale beer" espionage tales. So it turned out the Cold War setting and the fantasy trappings together put very similar demands on the characters.
These elements of the standalone novel are still visible in The Coldest War. (There's even a garden scene, although the messengers hail from Londinium rather than Rome). But the final result, where it stands as the second volume of a trilogy, is a far stronger book than it could have been on its own.
- Ian Tegillis