The Witch who came in from the Cold
Created by Lindsay Smith and Max Gladstone
Also written by Cassandra Rose Clarke, Michael Swanwick and Ian Tregillis
No man can serve two masters: for either he. will hate the one, and love the other; or else. he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Book of Matthew 6:24
In this review series I have often defended the internet and pointed out it's positive effect on the writing world and I will continue to do so. If nothing else I am old enough to remember being told as a child that when I reached adulthood I could very well be in a minority for being literate. The internet has made that idea laughable, but there are also a wide range of stories and writers who could only have been possible because of the internet. Authors like DaVaun Sanders, Dr. Bruce Davis, and KB Spangler have arisen because the internet provided them a medium to reach an audience without having to go through the publishing houses. The Witch Who Came in from the Cold, provides an example of another idea that has come back to the fore because of the internet. That being written serial fiction.
The idea of a larger story being printed in smaller parts is not new of course, it reached its greatest level of popularity in the 19th century; Sherlock Holmes was born in serialized fiction, the Three Musketeers and the Count of Monte Cristo were originally released as serialized fiction. In Russia such works as Anna Karenina were serialized, even Qing China had serialized stories going to print. In the US, stories like the Princess of Mars and the adventurers of Conan the Barbarian were serialized stories as late as the 1930s. However, as radios and televisions became cheaper, more and more the niche of serialized fiction was taken over by episodic television shows. By the mid 20th century serialized print fiction, outside of comic books, was rare and in many ways a dying art. Then the internet happened. In the early 2000s the first web serial novels began to appear in the English Web while in Japan the light novel evolved and became amazingly popular (see my Log Horizon reviews for more information on that) with the most popular web novel at this time most likely being Worm, by the writer known as Wildbow. Enter the service known as Serial box founded by Justin Yap and Molly Barton bringing together teams of writers to write books the same way you write a TV season with chapters serving as episodes written by a different writer or part of the team tying together into a single book. Let me briefly touch on those writers.
Lindsay Smith lives in Washington D.C her works include the young adult novels Sekret, A Darkly Beating, and Dreamstrider. She's the lead writer in this series. Max Gladstone is the author of the Craft series, which starts with Three Parts Dead and continues to the current installment of Ruin of Angels. Ian Tregillis, who wrote the Milkweed Triptych and Something More Than Night. Cassandra Rose Clarke, who won the Yalsa best fiction for young adults and the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice award, she's written many novels including Our Lady of the Ice, and Magic of Blood and Sea. Michael Swanwick, has written 9 novels and for his sins has received the Nebula, the World Fantasy award, and a Hugo; his latest book is Chasing the Phoenix. I honestly wish I could go into detail on each of these writers, they all deserve it, but we're here to talk about The Witch Who Came in from the Cold and if I spend the time to give you a detailed look over each of the writers, we won't get to the book. Speaking of that, let's jump into that.
It's 1970 Prague, Czechoslovakia. The Prague Spring, an attempt by Czech Socialist leaders to moderate away from hard-line Soviet Communism, has been crushed under Soviet tanks. The grip of “normalization” lies heavy on the city and the nation and the act has caused cracks in relations between the Soviet bloc and the western communist parties. The United States is still shuddering from the effects of Vietnam and spreading social ills sap at it's strength as the Nixon administration works frantically to address this and hold off a USSR which is increasingly becoming moored in it's own domestic problems. Despite all of this the Cold War grinds on and seems only able to end in nuclear exchange. The covert organizations of the Warsaw Pact and NATO grimly duel in the shadows of this war, each side seeking any secret, person, or resource that will give them the advantage... Or at least stave off nuclear Armageddon for one more day. That's just the shadowy struggle that the people of the world are aware of however. Hidden even under the secrets of state is another world where sorcery and magical ritual are the weapons of war. Ice, an alliance of traditionalist magic users, mostly tracing their ancestry from long lines of sorcerers and witches seeks to maintain the world. Meanwhile it's opponent the Flame seeks to destroy everything in a blaze of magical power in order to build a newer, better world from the ashes. Unbeknownst to the world at large both the Flame and Ice grapple for resources and position across the world, one side to lock the world into it's present state, the other to destroy it.
In the early months of 1970, both wars will slam into each and find themselves hinging on the same conflict as the agents of the CIA and KGB stations in Prague square off against another as do the sorcerers of Ice and the acolytes of Flame. CIA Gabe Pritchard has the misfortune to be stuck in both worlds. He is not a sorcerer, nor has he been raised in the secret world of ritual and spell. Instead through sheer misfortune and unrelenting paranoia he has been pulled in when he stumbled into something dark and rare in a basement in Cairo Egypt. Since then he has been afflicted with headaches and worse and his job performance is slipping. Something noticed by his boss and station leader Frank, who while not unsympathetic is running a spy ring in enemy territory and has zero margin for screw ups. Gabe has few people he can turn to besides Jordan Rhemes, neutral witch and bar owner, who feels responsible for Gabe's condition but has her own problems. Her bar is set on a very nice location and every one wants it. He could also turn to Alistair Winthrop, British Spy, Ice Sorcerer and a closet gay man (Editor: Being gay in the clandestine services back then was no picnic, ladies and gentle beasts) who may or may not be romancing Gabe's magically unaware partner Josh but Alistair clearly wants Gabe to join Ice and Gabe's not going easily. Gabe's struggle is to try and grapple with these vast new forces in his life and get a handle on them before they destroy his future.
Meanwhile Tanya Morozova, KGB agent and sorceress of Ice finds herself in an increasingly difficult situation as she must not only try to penetrate the plots of the CIA but fight off the Flame as more and more of it's foot-soldiers arrive in Prague seeking a rare Host for an elemental spirit that could give them the power to start their world burning. On top of this her own station chief is clearly looking to either kill her or break her into working for him instead of Moscow (Porque no los dos? This is the KGB after all). Her partner Nadia who is also in the KGB and an Ice sorceress is right along side her but as Tanya finds herself having having doubts in Ice's methods (in part due to the brash CIA agent Gabe) she finds herself wondering just who her friends are (You know, I can see this getting confusing. One minute, you are trying to kill the british spy, the next minute, you have to work with them to prevent some anarchist from exploding the world…). Tanya has to sort out her loyalties and work out her relationship with her past before the web around her gets to close. I feel Tanya is a tragic character in a lot of ways, her disillusionment with Ice mirrors the lost of faith many of her countrymen would soon have in Communism. While I'll never mourn the fall of communism, I can't help but feel sympathetic to people like Tanya who are good, loyal people pouring out their blood, sweat and tears for a system that frankly doesn't deserve their sacrifice. I suppose all I can say is someday we will have a world worth their loyalty and when we do it will because of those people as much as because of the people who stand outside the system and push.
The story uses Tanya and Gabe as characters who bounce off of each other, sometimes helping one another, sometimes foiling one another and as characters whose struggles and troubles reflect the other. This is incredibly well done in my opinion, both of them have supporting characters whether it be their partners like Nadia and Josh who serve as aides and characters who serve as antagonists. Their battles parallel each other but they are different enough that they not just duplicates of the other. For example Gabe has to constantly keep secrets from Josh, his CIA partner when it comes to magic. Nadia is completely aware of magic and might even be better at it then Tanya. Instead Tanya finds the distance coming from her doubts in Ice not from any secrets she has to keep. Tanya's station master Sasha is very much an antagonist to her constantly prying at her secrets with a goal to turn her into a personal minion or to kill her to prevent her from learning any of his secrets. Frank, Gabe's station master on the flip side is clearly a demanding boss but one who will back up any agent that he knows is giving 100% and doing good work and isn't planning on killing any of his employees. Which is always a big plus in a boss in my mind. There are characters that connect Tanya and Gabe as well, Jordan Rhemes who will aide both of them within reason. Alistair who as a fellow sorcerer in Ice is an ally to Tanya at times but as an agent of MI6 is an enemy at others. There's also Zerena, an ambassador's wife who’s clearly playing her own game, in which world and for what I'll leave to you to discover. Each of the supporting characters have their own goals and desires, Nadia and Josh don't feel like sidekicks but like people with their own stories and desires.The worlds of espionage and magic weave in and out of each other with breath stealing speed and intensity that pull you further and further into the story as secrets are slowly unspooled and operations both magical and mundanely covert are launched in the secret four-way grapple. That said, for those of you wondering why I opened a review on Cold War magic-using spies with a Bible Verse? Because as I read the story it comes more and more to mind. Sooner or later Tanya and Gabe are going to be pushed up against the wall and will have to decide what loyalties have the most claim on them because no one can serve two causes forever.
If you like magic done in dark secret places, if you like mystery and underhanded dealings, if you like stories that acknowledge the banal side of espionage (another thing that ties Gabe and Tanya together is their dislike and despair at all the paperwork involved!)l or if you're interested in seeing what Urban Fantasy might have looked like at the height of the Cold War... Well this is the book for you! I honestly enjoyed this book, I expected to dislike at least some of the characters, as a good number of them are bloody KGB spies but the writers managed to humanize them and keep them from doing anything that would send them over the moral event horizon. I even dare hope that a Russian would find the CIA agents here worth sympathizing with. That said there's not a lot of direct action or violence this book, not that this book is bloodless or without a good fight or three, just this has more of thriller about it than an action movie. Because of this, I give The Witch Who Came In From the Cold by way too many people for me to list again an A. The sequel (aka season 2) is out on Serial Box as well as season 1 so you can get both in a single pop or if you feel like being cautious you can buy an episode for 1.99$. You can also do what I did and pick up season 1 in dead tree format at Amazon.
Next week a look at the soft reboot of the Rat Queens! Keep reading!
This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.
Next week a look at the soft reboot of the Rat Queens! Keep reading!
This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.