The Short Version: In 1970, the Cold War is in full swing and Prague, on the edge of the Iron Curtain, is one of the hotspots of covert action. But Gabe Pritchard, CIA officer, discovers a whole other secret war – one between sorcerers, of Ice and Flame – and finds that allegiances aren’t so clear when magic gets involved. With a major op on the horizon, he and his KGB counterpart Tanya Morozova must find a way to work together even in opposition. The fate of the whole world may rest in their hands, in more ways than one.
The Review: I had such fun with SerialBox Publishing’s debut serial (Bookburners) that it was only a matter of time before I jumped to another – and with The Witch Who Came in From the Cold, I got to start right at the very beginning, following along truly week by week. This, of course, is how the serial is ostensibly designed to be consumed – but it was quite an experience to, every Wednesday, find a new installment waiting for me and then I could choose, essentially, how to consume it. There were times that it was in my ears by 9am Wednesday morning and I was done within 24 hours… but there were also times where it took over a week to finish an episode. Sometimes it was to do with the episode itself, more often to do with my life – but the sense of time was more potent with this one than it was with Bookburners S1.
So, too, was the sense of an overarching plot. Where Bookburners felt similar to The X-Files or Supernatural or really most televised fantasy/horror TV shows (monster-of-the-week with a late-season build to the overarching plot), ColdWitch (as the hashtag goes) has the feel of so-called “prestige TV”: Mad Men, The Americans, or even limited series like the adaptation of The Night Manager.
This last, of course, is quite telling: ColdWitch owes an immense debt to the work of John le Carré, starting (but by no means ending) with the novel that gave this serial its name. But this isn’t just le-Carré-with-magic – it’s both things, operating simultaneously. There’s a moment, at the very end of the final chapter, where the head of CIA Prague Station mentions the sense that there’s “another game running next to ours, or on top of it”, and that’s exactly the sense of this serial: the spycraft and derring-do are sometimes dull and boring (see Episode Six: “A Week Without Magic”, which was exactly what it sounds like) but also far more intense than the magical stuff. The two are connected, intertwined even, but they also standalone. To carry the chess metaphor used throughout the serial forward a bit, you could consider this three-dimensional chess.
The serial itself took a bit of time to get going: the early chapters are a little heavy on world-building while also keeping some of the specifics purposefully obscured. Gabe’s “hitchhiker”, for example: we saw it wreaking havoc on his life, but I was ready for the reveal about Cairo about an episode and a half before it arrived. This felt, at times, like a ten-episode serial spread out to thirteen episodes – a problem I have with plenty of TV shows as well. It was Episode Five, Ian Tregillis’ “The Golem”, where things really started to heat up – the opening plot with Andula Zlata having been mostly, at that point, dispatched – but then Episode Six was a sort of bottle-episode that, while it certainly gave readers (or listeners) a sense of the mundanity of the Cold War in Prague in 1970… man, it stopped the story in its tracks for an entire episode. But the back half of the series, from Episode Seven to the end, things really get going. The last four episodes – from “ANCHISES” to “Company Time” – provided the sort of reading experience where I couldn’t help but demand that time move faster so that I could get to the next installment. And the pace does not let up even into the last chapter: double and triple crosses, huge magical undertakings, shootouts, and more. The shootout at the safehouse (I don’t want to say more for fear of spoilers) is one of the most thrilling sequences in any spy novel I think I’ve ever read, right up there with the sort of thing they try (and often fail) to replicate on film in the Bond movies.
In more technical news, it’s worth taking a moment to shout out the strong leap that SerialBox took between Bookburners S1 and this serial. (I didn’t read/listen to Tremontaine, so I can’t speak to whether or not they had these advances there.) For one thing, there’s a little bit of theme music and a generally stronger production quality to the audio – it all felt a little more polished, which was nice. Nice, too, was the dual voices of ColdWitch: John Glouchevitch and Christine Lakin switched off reading, largely keeping to Gabe’s/the West’s bits and Tanya’s/the East’s bits (although those lines blurred towards the end). Both did great accent work and created masterful representations of a panoply of characters – and, to boot, they both sounded like what you’d hope narrators of a magic-spy serial would sound like. Lakin was particularly strong with the Russian accents and Glouchevitch sounded like Sterling Archer’s more competent brother – and it was a nice way to avoid any repetition or dullness over the course of a single episode.
I wonder if ColdWitch will be back for a second season. There are certainly some open ends and a wealth of potential adventures for our heroes and anti-heroes to get up to… but I kind of hope they leave this one self-contained. Again like the best thrillers that inspired it, the story’s rapid ascent to the climax and minimal falling action/denouement felt like it wrapped up this story – the story of Sokolov, of Gabe’s hitchhiker, of the particular moment in time in the battle between East and West, Flame and Ice, that it doesn’t need to pick up in 1971, you know? That said, the world has so much more to explore – and a sibling story, instead of a proper sequel (think: The Wire), might be just the thing.
Just a thought.
Rating: 4 out of 5. There’s some unevenness and slowness at times, especially in the first few episodes, but the back half of the season is some of the best-paced, most exciting writing in either the spy or fantasy genres. The writers room for this one really put together a massive world with compelling characters – and they got two excellent readers to put it all on tape for them. Bookburners was a fun listen but this is the one that proves, to me, that SerialBox has staying power. I can’t wait to see what comes next.