Book Review: The Witch Who Came in From the Cold created by Lindsay Smith and Max Gladstone
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Fantasy, Alternate History
Series: Book 1 of The Witch Who Came in From the Cold
Publisher: Saga Press (June 13, 2017)
Length: 624 pages
I may not be the biggest fan of spy fiction, but out of all the Serial Box series released so far, The Witch Who Came in From the Cold was probably the one that excited me the most. To know why, you just have to take one look at that dream team of an author line-up. There are even a couple on there who are on my auto-read list. I mean, that’s a lot of talent in one place, and of course, I was also curious to see how their different styles would work together, because as you know this book is a serialized novel made up of a number of individual “episodes”, similar to a season of a TV show.
As you’ve probably gathered from the title, The Witch Who Came in From the Cold draws its inspiration from the Cold War spy novel by John le Carré. Offering a quirky mix of politics and espionage, the story also has a fair bit of magic and other paranormal elements thrown in for good measure. The scene opens in Prague, where both KGB and CIA agents conduct covert operations amidst heightened hostilities between their respective countries. Gabe Pritchard is an American agent who has been struggling with some problems as of late. Ever since returning from another assignment in Cairo, he has been experiencing some strange effects, like headaches and other distractions that seem to strike him at the worst possible times. Eventually, his actions lead him to cross paths with his Russian counterpart, a KGB operative named Tanya Morozova. While Gabe is aware that she is an agent for the other side, little does he know Tanya is actually more than she appears.
For you see, behind the tensions between the US and Russia, there lies another conflict—the struggle between two magical factions, Ice and Flame. Secretly, Tanya is a sorceress for Ice, working to prevent Flame from realizing their vision of a new world born from the ashes of the old. However, after some disturbing new developments, she is beginning to wonder just how much she can trust her own organization. Complicating matters is the fact that an ally in politics does not necessarily mean an ally in magic, and caught in between are the mundane agents who are blissfully unaware that a whole other sphere of reality lies hidden beneath their own.
After an action-packed intro in the first episode, the story does admittedly slow down somewhat, focusing instead on developing the characters’ backstories and how they came to their positions. The magical aspect is made known very early, following Tanya and her colleague Nadia as they track a target through the streets of Prague. This was our first taste of how magic operates in this world, via elementals and human hosts. It’s a fascinating system, and this section also does double duty in revealing where Tanya’s true loyalties lie. Then there’s Gabe, whose chapters alternate with Tanya’s. He is an ambitious CIA agent, and sometimes a bit rash, which often puts him at odds with his superiors throughout the course of the novel. His character is also important because initially, he is just your mundane guy who has no idea magic exists. Through his eyes, we are gradually eased into the secret war between Flame and Ice, once it is discovered that his migraines have a magical cause and he is forced to work with Tanya in order to find out more.
I have to say, I really enjoyed the authors’ take on the Cold War premise here, especially the added layer of complexity thanks to the imaginative inclusion of the magical war. That said though, due to the constant back-and-forth between the themes of espionage and magic, the pacing did sometimes feel a bit uneven to me. To be fair, I don’t read a lot of spy novels, and when I do, they’re often of the thriller-suspense variety, so subtler types of plot developments tend to be wasted on me. Not that I didn’t appreciate all intelligence gathering, underhanded backstabbing, or sowing seeds of doubt, but after a while, it was clear that I so much preferred the paranormal aspects like ley lines, magical golems, and sorcerous cults. In the end, I was not surprised to find myself gravitating more towards Tanya’s chapters, because hers often featured more magic, while Gabe’s dealt more predominantly with spycraft.
I also noticed similar themes or story ideas repeated in some episodes. Not sure if this might be a hitch in the editing process, but I suppose when you have multiple authors working on the same project, there’s going to be more potential for such issues. Of course, it’s possible too that reading the episodes week by might would have given me a completely different experience. On the whole though, I felt that the serialized format actually worked quite well in this case. Transitioning between the different episodes was practically seamless, and there was clear synergy between the authors’ writing styles. Books like these are also fast making me rethink my initial skepticism for serial novels. Though I think I will always prefer consuming my serials like my TV shows, i.e. binging full seasons all at once, I’m definitely starting to see their potential for creative storytelling as well as a more entertaining way of reading.
Bottom line, The Witch Who Came in From the Cold is another sophisticated and innovative series, perfect for readers who might be feeling up for some fantasy in their spy fiction. Despite some minor obstacles, I had a good time with this book, and it was a treat and joy to see the amazing work done on it by some of my favorite authors.