The Witch Who Came in From the Cold (Season 1) by Serial Box

Who Can You Trust? Welcome to Prague, 1970: the epicenter in a struggle of spies and sorcerers. The Witch Who Came In From The Cold follows agents on opposing sides of two struggles: the Cold War, and an ancient conflict between two occult secret societies: the Consortium of Ice and the Acolytes of Flame. A CIA and KGB agent will find their loyalties to country tested when they realize they must work together to prevent the destruction of the world at the hands of the Flame. Gabe Pritchard, grizzled CIA agent and proud American never believed in sorcery – until he walked into the wrong room in Cairo and ended up with a powerful magical Elemental living inside his head. Tanya Morozova, latest in a long line of Ice Witches, knew loyalty to the Consortium before she ever took up the KGB badge. Now they’re both stationed to Prague, a city built on powerful ley lines and thrumming with both political and magical tension.

First of all, what is Serial Box? It’s advertised as “HBO for Readers” and offers novel-length story content in both audio and e-book formats. Each episode takes around an hour to read or listen to, and the total cost for a season is often between $10 – $20. This can make it a little more expensive than an Audible credit, but you get both the text and audio formats, plus optional “previously on” character and plot summaries.

The Witch Who Came In From the Cold was created by Lindsay Smith and Max Gladstone. Episodes are written by Lindsay Smith, Cassandra Rose Clarke, Fran Wilde, Max Gladstone, Ian Tregillis, and Michael Swanwick. The audio is narrated by Christine Lakin and John Glouchevitch.

Whew. On to the story.

It’s hard to go wrong with a Cold War spy thriller featuring an underground world of magic. Throughout the entire story, there are two conflicts. First, there’s the political conflict of the CIA versus the KGB. There’s also the magical struggle of the Consortium of Ice (who want to preserve the world) and the Acolytes of Flame (who want to burn the world down and start anew). Things are complicated enough with the fear of political double agents and inter-agency espionage. But both the CIA and KGB have secret members of Ice and Flame.

Gabe Pritchard is a veteran CIA agent who’s hit a dry spell in his career. If you can consider the powerful Elemental living inside his head a dry spell, of course. He’s thrust into the underground world of magic against his will and has to learn how to survive.

Tanya Morozova is one of the Ice’s most skilled witches and a senior agent in the KGB. After meeting Gabe, she’s forced to reconsider everything she thinks she knows about the Consortium she’s served faithfully for years.

The story beautifully and vividly depicts Prague in 1970. It’s not a common setting for a fantasy story and it was done brilliantly. Both audio narrators have are incredibly talented and can switch between authentic-sounding American and Russian accents at will. And the magic system, something fantastical by definition, feels realistic and bound by a consistent set of rules that prevent random deus ex machina.

While primarily told from the perspective of Gabe and Tanya, there’s a varied cast of side characters. From the magical bartender who refuses to take sides to the young CIA agent attempting to hide his sexual orientation, I always wanted to learn more about these characters.

So, what’s different due to the serial format?

For a start, each of the six authors wrote a couple of the episodes. When starting a new episode, there are noticeable stylistic differences. And I loved that. While I could tell I was experiencing the story through a different writer, the overarching plot felt cohesive and episode had a unique flavor. As someone who listened to the audio, keeping the narrators constant across various authors helped to further solidify the overall story. Similar to a TV series, each episode told a complete (though not standalone) story arc and ended in a cliffhanger that made the book difficult to put down.

The Witch Who Came in From the Cold is one of the best stories I’ve read in a long time. Combining the best parts of spy thrillers and secret magical organizations, you can expect one hell of a ride.

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