I am here for the flipping of narratives on traditional villains and historical retellings. The Witch and the Tsar is a rich historical fiction by Olesya Salnikova Gilmore that you probably won’t want to miss if you are interested in Slavic folklore.
As a half-goddess possessing magic, Yaga is used to living on her own, her prior entanglements with mortals having led to heartbreak. She mostly keeps to her hut in the woods, where those in need of healing seek her out, even as they spread rumors about her supposed cruelty and wicked spells. But when her old friend Anastasia—now the wife of the tsar, and suffering from a mysterious illness—arrives in her forest desperate for her protection, Yaga realizes the fate of all of Russia is tied to Anastasia’s. Yaga must step out of the shadows to protect the land she loves.
As she travels to Moscow, Yaga witnesses a sixteenth century Russia on the brink of chaos. Tsar Ivan—soon to become Ivan the Terrible—grows more volatile and tyrannical by the day, and Yaga believes the tsaritsa is being poisoned by an unknown enemy. But what Yaga cannot know is that Ivan is being manipulated by powers far older and more fearsome than anyone can imagine.
Olesya Salnikova Gilmore weaves a rich tapestry of mythology and Russian history, reclaiming and reinventing the infamous Baba Yaga, and bringing to life a vibrant and tumultuous Russia, where old gods and new tyrants vie for power. This fierce and compelling novel draws from the timeless lore to create a heroine for the modern day, fighting to save her country and those she loves from oppression while also finding her true purpose as a goddess, a witch, and a woman.
(Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher. This has not impacted my review which is unbiased and honest.)
History And Folklore
Silent histories and narratives that have been popping up from the female perspective are not getting old for me. Plus Salnikova Gilmore adds a heavy folklore theme, which I’m loving. I generally know that Baba Yaga is a trickster witch that was to be rather nefarious. So I like how The Witch and the Tsar flips that old and wicked view of this traditional hag-ish villain. Instead, Yaga in the book isn’t a “baba” but a young (looking) and fairly neutral entity.
I did also enjoy the mixing of history with folklore and the supernatural. Salnikova Gilmore set the novel during the reign of Ivan the Terrible. It was an interesting experiment to place this period in the context of otherworldly powers guiding the hands of historical beings. This also allowed Salnikova Gilmore to flex all the research that went into both the history of this period and the folklore of Baba Yaga and other mythological beings.
Pace and Development
I would not call the plot fast-paced, but a lot of time elapses over the period of the book. In a way, this did cause the book to drag in certain parts. At times, I was unsure of how invested I should be in certain characters. I do understand that Yaga is on and off involved in the reign of Ivan the Terrible, which was long. I wonder if the book may have been overall more impactful if the timeframe was narrower rather than a flyover.
The Witch and the Tsar did develop most characters and the world well. It was clear that the author took the time to research and build the world of the book. This added to the richness of the setting. Unfortunately, I wanted to see more development of certain characters, such as her three companions. They clearly did have interesting personalities that I think could have been explored more.
I really enjoyed reading The Witch and the Tsar. It was rich in history, folklore, and interesting characters. At times it did seem to be a traipse through the decades. Events and characters that could have been more fleshed out. Regardless, the pros easily outweighed the cons in this book and I’d easily recommend this to anyone interested in folklore!