The Cold War has proved fertile ground for writers, even more than twenty years after the Berlin Wall came down. The pervasive tension, the betrayals, the doubts, the idealism—all of it is perfect for writers. The writers of The Witch Who Came in from the Cold, however, thought that their characters could use even more complexity in their lives. Over the course of the book, Gabe Pritchard (CIA) and Tanya Morozova (KGB) have to deal not just with defections, stealing secrets, and interfering bosses, but a golem, monstrous constructs, and a bigger war than the one between the Communist East and the Capitalist West. The bigger, magical war seems more likely to end the world than the two superpowers launching nuclear strikes against each other.
Tanya Morozova is a veteran of the KGB and of Ice, a magical organization that works to keep agents of Flame from destroying their earth. When we meet her, she and her partner, Nadia (also KGB and Ice), are trying to stop Flame from capturing someone who hosts an elemental. (Hosts and elementals are hoarded by each side because they can boost the effectiveness of magical spells.) The fight is touch and go for a bit, causing some damage to the streets of Prague, but Tanya and Nadia eventually manage to bring the host “in from the cold.” This is just the beginning for Tanya when it becomes clear that the little job leads to open warfare between Ice and Flame.
Meanwhile, we are introduced to Gabe Pritchard, a CIA agent who also serves as our entry point into the war between Ice and Flame. He tangled with the weird in Cairo, before he was transferred to Prague. He’s got mysterious migraines that are starting to affect his work; he almost bungles turning a Soviet agent. He needs help, but he really does not like that getting help means working with people who nominally work for the KGB. While Tanya shows us more about Ice, Gabe sticks as close as possible to CIA work. Each chapter flips back and forth between the two characters, so that we always get our fill of magic and espionage.
The Witch Who Came in from the Cold is packed with action. While Tanya and Gabe work for their official bosses (complicated enough), they’re also increasingly caught up in working for Ice. Gabe fights hard with his loyalties and we see just how hard it is for individuals to try and serve two masters. This conflict is the heart of the book. The more I read, the more I felt the pressure the characters were under. How were they supposed to get everything done and not blow their covers? It’s almost unbearable at times—though I did get a kick out of how Tanya got revenge on a KGB official from Moscow who spent too much time reading spy novels and wanted to put what he’d read into practice.
The Witch Who Came in from the Cold was originally published as a serial novel. Each “episode” was written by a different author: Lindsay Smith, Max Gladstone, Cassandra Rose Clarke, Ian Tregillis, and Michael Swanwick. Reading all of the episodes as a novel reveals how skilled these authors are at picking up on each other’s plots and characterization, adding to them, and leaving the next author plenty of room to add their own touches. It’s stunning to watch them all work together.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration.