The Witch Who Came in from the Cold: Spy vs. Spy in the city of a hundred spires

The Witch Who Came in from the Cold by Lindsay Smith, Max Gladstone, Cassandra Rose Clarke, Ian Tregillis, and Michael SwanwickThe Witch Who Came in from the Cold by Lindsay Smith, Max Gladstone, Cassandra Rose Clarke, Ian Tregillis & Michael Swanwick

The Witch Who Came in from the Cold by Lindsay Smith, Max Gladstone, Cassandra Rose Clarke, Ian Tregillis, and Michael SwanwickThe Witch Who Came in from the Cold (2017) is a study in contradictions. It’s a collaborative novel that feels seamless despite the five contributing authors: Lindsay Smith, Max Gladstone, Cassandra Rose Clarke, Ian Tregillis, and Michael Swanwick. It was originally published in serialized form by Serial Box — Season One comprising the contents of The Witch Who Came in from the Cold, while Season Two’s episodes are currently only available online — and yet one episode flows into another with no narrative hiccups or backsliding. Furthermore, the series title and subject matter are an obvious nod to John le Carré’s 1963 Cold War spy novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and yet foreknowledge of le Carré’s work will not spoil any of the surprises awaiting readers.

Wheels within wheels within wheels are turning in The Witch Who Came in from the Cold; it’s safest to assume that absolutely no one can be trusted, no matter who they work for or what motivations they claim to have. This is far more than a tale of American spies working against Soviet agents — although it’s that, too, and the power struggle between East and West is played out beautifully, with the citizens of Prague caught in the center. Behind the tumultuous Cold War espionage is an additional thicket of Flame vs. Ice, two groups with access to powerful forms of sorcery whose members might drape themselves in any nation’s flag while covertly exercising their true allegiance to one magical group or the other.

For example, take Tatiana Morozova, who for all appearances is your standard KaGeBeznik operative in service to the KGB agenda. She’s extraordinarily well-trained in espionage, surveillance, combat, and everything else she might need in her intelligence-gathering duties. She keeps her true identity as an agent of the Consortium of Ice a total secret from nearly everyone she knows, though that doesn’t prevent her from using magic around her partner, Nadia, who assists Tanya in missions for the Ice. Their primary concern is in securing the safety of a young woman known as a Host, a person with tremendous elemental power that can lie dormant for years, even decades, before waking and causing destruction if left unharnessed. Nadia and Tanya must keep their motivations unknown, as it’s impossible to know who among their Soviet ranks is an ordinary human, who works for the Ice, and who might be in league with the Flame.

Then there’s Gabe Pritchard, a CIA officer whose specialty is in convincing European “assets” to ally themselves with the United States rather than with the Soviet Union. Lately, though, he’s been experiencing horrific headaches that interfere with his ability to function on a base level, and he’s happy to let his superiors think it’s some kind of illness rather than reveal the truth: he accidentally stumbled into some kind of secret conclave in Cairo a few months prior, and the world he thought he knew was turned completely upside-down. He’s got a few allies, namely Jordan, who owns and runs a bar as a front for her real business, selling magical talismans and performing other kinds of sorcery; through her he meets MI6 agent Alestair Winthrop, who also works for the Ice, and who claims to be able to help Gabe rid himself of the headaches … in exchange for certain kinds of cooperation, of course.

Though various characters have access to wide-ranging kinds of magic in The Witch Who Came in from the Cold, the authors all take care to maintain the verisimilitude of Prague in 1970, down to minute details like hairstyle, food, and casual slang. Everyone must make do with what they have, and though magic does give many of them an advantage, it’s all appealingly lo-fi. Magic doesn’t sub in for what we might consider modern conveniences like cell phones or computers, so when characters need to reach one another quickly or have to track down important information, there’s a very real risk that delays or missteps can be fatal. The location itself is key, particularly in the tug-of-war between American and Soviet interests, and certain plot elements wouldn’t be possible if the episodes were set elsewhere.

Gabe is a little too straitlaced at first to really appeal to me, though as he comes to grips with the layers of secrets he must delve through, his character begins to shift in interesting ways. His partner, Josh, is preoccupied with his own multi-layered existence, which poses problems (with their own potentially deadly ramifications) that I wish had been examined a little more fully. Tanya, who grew up within the Ice and fully understands what she’s up against, provides a doubly-fascinating view into Cold war-era Soviet espionage as well as the struggles of a legacy sorcerer who questions her role and loyalty to either of the groups trying to pull her strings. There are a multitude of other characters in play, as well, each with their own private lives and public faces, hinting toward shocking revelations and daring adventures to come.

I greatly enjoyed The Witch Who Came in from the Cold; it captures much of what I enjoy about Cold War spy novels while adding a few tweaks here and there to suit modern readers. I sincerely hope that Season Two will be collected in an omnibus edition soon, as I’m dying to know more about the Flame, the Ice, and the people caught in their webs. Highly recommended.

Published June 13, 2017. Welcome to Prague, 1970: ground zero in a Cold War of spies and sorcerers. The streets are a deadly chessboard on which the CIA and KGB make their moves, little dreaming that a deeper game is being played between the Consortium of Ice and the Acolytes of Flame, ancient organizations that seek to harness elemental magic. Tanya Morozova is a KGB officer and the latest in a long of Ice sorceresses; Gabe Pritchard is a CIA officer and reluctant Ice recruit. Enemies at one turn, but forced into alliances at the next, their relationship is as explosive as the Cold War itself.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but now makes her home in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, and Seanan McGuire.

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