The Witch Who Came in from the Cold, Lindsay Smith, Max Gladstone, Cassandra Rose Clarke, Ian Tregillis & Michael Swanwick (Saga 978-1-4814-8560-9, $21.99, 624pp, hc) June 2017.
The Witch Who Came in from the Cold is one of a number of serial narratives that originated with Serial Box in electronic format and are now being published in paper by Saga Press. (The others include Bookburners, which also boasts of Max Gladstone’s involvement, and Tremontaine, a prequel narrative to Ellen Kushner’s acclaimed Swordspoint.) This volume contains all 12 episodes of The Witch Who Came in from the Cold’s first season, written by Lindsay Smith, Max Gladstone, Cassandra Rose Clarke, Ian Tregillis & Michael Swanwick.
With this all-star line-up – lead writer Smith has published a trio of young adult novels, and Clarke’s work straddles several genres, while Gladstone and Tregillis are well known as writers with a flair for twisty novels full of intrigue, and Swanwick has an award-winning career well under his belt – you might expect The Witch Who Came in from the Cold to be an eminently capable story of spies, magic, intrigue and betrayal. Fortunately, you’d be right: this is one volume that lives up to the promises of its cover.
The Witch Who Came in from the Cold takes place in Prague, between January 18 and March 2 in the year 1970. Prague (now the capital of the Czech Republic) is in 1970 the capital of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, a nation within the ambit of Soviet Russia’s sphere of influence. The city’s dark and wintry atmosphere, as well as its age and character, are deftly evoked within the pages of the serial. So is its sense as contested territory, a field for not-quite-open war – and this same sense is evoked within the lives of each of the characters. Prague in 1970 is a place where CIA agents and KGB officers may frequent the same cafes and the same diplomatic soirées, while attempting to recruit their various local pawns.
Alongside the CIA and the KGB – and among them – are agents of two warring magical factions, the Ice and the Flame. The Ice and the Flame are vying for control of elemental Hosts – according to members of the Ice, the Flame want them in order to destroy the world. Loyalty to the Ice or to the Flame does not map to loyalty to any given geopolitical entity, however, and in The Witch Who Came in from the Cold, the intersections between national loyalties, personal loyalties, and magical ones create dizzying possibilities for intrigue and betrayal.
The major characters of The Witch Who Came in from the Cold are KGB agent Tatiana ‘‘Tanya’’ Morozova, whose family has a long history with the Ice, and CIA agent Gabe Pritchard, who has had peculiar experiences ever since an encounter with something he could not explain in Cairo – and who, while he eventually accepts that what he’s encountered is magic, doesn’t want to have to deal with magic, and most especially, to deal with having to ally himself with people who, because of his national loyalties, he cannot trust. Circumstances align, however, to push Tanya and Gabe both towards a reluctant and mistrustful semi-alliance.
Around Tanya and Gabe are a broad assortment of other characters, with agendas of their own. Tanya’s KGB partner Nadia (who is also her partner, and possibly her superior, in the work they do for the Ice); the other CIA agents in Gabe’s office; the KGB Rezidentura chief; various characters associated with the university of Prague and diplomatic movers and shakers; British intelligence agent (and member of the Ice) Alestair Winthrop; and Jordan, an unaffiliated magician and a bar-owner in Prague’s Old Town. They are all interesting delineated, vividly sketched: none of this serial’s writers can be said to be lacking when it comes to their skills in characterisation.
The consistency of voice and the style across the episodes of The Witch Who Came in from the Cold is remarkable. While there are small differences in emphasis between the different writers, overall a great unity is maintained, making the reading experience a very smooth one.
One of the noteworthy things about The Witch Who Came in from the Cold, of course, is its existence as a serial. The 13-episode structure mirrors that of a television series, as do the episodes themselves. Each episode is a self-contained narrative, but one which builds towards an overarching storyline. It invokes, in its tone and atmosphere, and its themes of trust and betrayal, the old-fashioned hard-boiled espionage of – for example – The Sandbaggers, while remaining thoroughly modern in its approaches to gender and sexuality, and while rollicking along with an extraordinary eye to pace, tension, and ever-more-nail-biting cliffhangers.
I enjoyed The Witch Who Came in from the Cold a great deal. I recommend it entirely, for those who enjoy their spy thrillers with a magical edge.