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Magic creeps into the Cold War in podcast The Witch Who Came in From the Cold

Magic creeps into the Cold War in podcast The Witch Who Came in From the Cold


A fantasy series from an innovative digital publisher

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Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

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During the 1970s, the Cold War was in full swing and Eastern Europe was a hotbed of agents and spies of both the Soviet Union and the United States. During this time, Czechoslovakia was a quiet battleground as both sides attempted to gain intelligence from one another. But in Serial Box’s podcast series The Witch Who Came in From the Cold, there’s another war brewing: one between ancient magical factions, Ice and The Flame, each of which have battled for millennia over control of the world. Prague in particular is home to several intersecting Ley lines unseen by the typical citizen, turning the city into a magical battleground.

The series follows Gabe Pritchard, a CIA agent who has unwittingly discovered magical powers of his own, and Tanya Morozova, a Soviet agent who finds that she’s serving two masters: Ice, and the Soviet Union. As their paths crisscross and converge, the agents will have to determine where their loyalties really lie.

The Witch Who Came in From the Cold offers something unusual for a podcast: the ability to not only listen to the story, but to read it as well. Created by an innovative publisher called Serial Box, it focuses on serialized content and telling a longer story in an overarching “season,” scripted by a team of writers — not unlike the writer’s room for a television show.

You can listen to The Witch Who Came in From the Cold by buying each season on either Serial Box’s website, or via its iOS app. The first season is also available from Saga Press as a trade paperback.

Image: Serial Box

The Witch Who Came in From the Cold is the creation of two fantasy authors: Lindsay Smith (Web of Frost, Sekret) Max Gladstone (The Craft series), and they’re joined by a number of other well-known authors who wrote individual episodes: Cassandra Rose Clarke, Ian Tregillis, Michael Swanwick, and Fran Wilde.

Gladstone explained to The Verge that prior to Serial Box’s founding, he had a series of conversations with now-CEO Julian Yap about serialized fiction and storytelling, where he recalled listening to radio dramas as a kid. They recognized the potential that this format had for the web, and wanted to do something that people could come back to week after week. Yap went on to found Serial Box with Molly Barton, and Gladstone came up with a series of pitches for potential stories, concluding that spy fiction would do particularly well in a serialized format. “You can explore different angles, and tension, there can be different sorts of procedural problems, and it’s another form of a really intense American workplace drama,” says Yap.

He was interested in the city of Prague, but noted that he didn’t know much about the Cold War and espionage at that period of time. That expertise came from Smith, whom Yap approached after reading her YA psychic Cold War espionage thriller Sekret. Smith, who has a background in Russian Studies, drew on her knowledge of Soviet history throughout the project, which helped bring the sense of realism to the story. She and Gladstone established the basic premise of the series, and then assembled their writer’s room to compose their first, 13-episode season in a condo in Washington DC.

As part of a team of six authors, Smith and Gladstone act as showrunners, ensuring that the series had a consistent tone from episode to episode. “We did the episodes in batches,” she says, “where everyone in the group would write one episode, and then we got them together and had four episodes to look at that were supposed to be chronological.” As a group, they’d read over the episodes, make changes, then go through another editorial pass. “This is the funny thing about our collaboration,” Gladstone explains, “it’s not as though I sat down and wrote a quarter of the world documents and then Lindsay wrote half of the world documents, and then other people came in and wrote specific shares. We kept successively adding layers onto our sense of where all these characters were.”

From there, the team wrote out their first season, and followed up with a second season last year. Gladstone and Smith both note that they’re developing a third season for the series, but it hasn’t been greenlit just yet. Gladstone notes that most of the writers come from a “prose fiction background, not an audio drama background like [author] Mac Rogers, so that means we’re approaching it through a storyteller’s lens, rather than a dramatist’s lens.” He says that Serial Box offers up something unique: the opportunity to alternate between reading and listening, and that the company spent a lot of time finding the ideal narrator for the project. “I think the audio element is really exciting,” says Gladstone, “it’s not something I anticipated, but it’s been a really interesting aspect for how people relate to these stories.”

Smith noted that designing the story with audio in mind, in addition to print fiction, prompted some changes. “Hearing it out loud for the first time during the initial run-through, I was like “Oh! Some of these fancy Russian words don’t flow as well off the tongue as they do in my head when I’m reading it,’” and had to go back and make some adjustments to make the language flow better. “I’ve been really surprised at how many people prefer the audio component,” she says. “I’m not personally a big audiobook fan, but I have a lot of friends with long commutes, and others who don’t read that much who’ve been able to listen to the story. It’s cool to be able to share that with that wide a group of people.”