Originally posted on Leah’s Books.
The Witch and the Tsar
- Author: Olesya Salnikova Gilmore
- Genre: Fantasy
- Publication Date: September 20, 2022
- Publisher: Ace
Thank you to the author for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.
CONTENT WARNING: mention of death of a parent, misogyny, blood, off-page harm to animals, grief, murder, gore, mention of torture, mention of rape, war
In this stunning debut novel, the maligned and immortal witch of legend known as Baba Yaga will risk all to save her country and her people from Tsar Ivan the Terrible—and the dangerous gods who seek to drive the twisted hearts of men.
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 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 brings to life a vibrant and tumultuous Russia, where old gods and new tyrants vie for power. This fierce and compelling novel draws from 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.
I was absolutely heartbroken when I got denied for this on NetGalley (side-eyes NetGalley), so my next step was obviously to enter a giveaway the author was running on Instagram. I didn’t win that, but my comment about how I felt when I was denied on NG must have struck a chord, because next thing I know, she slid right into my DMs and offered me a PHYSICAL ARC, which was even better than an NG copy, since now I have this beauty on my shelves for all time. I mean, I was primed to love this book from when I had first heard about it, but after reading it? I’m on a whole new level.
Baba Yaga is a folktale that many have heard of, and it’s been resurrected time and time again, yet this story manages to keep it fresh and somehow completely unique.
While many of us have heard the old Baba Yaga tale of her having the house on chicken legs, flying through the air in her mortar and pestle, and tricking children into her house so she can shove them into her oven and eat them, decorating her house with their skulls, Gilmore completely divorces the story from those elements. She keeps the house on chicken legs, but gives us more of Yaga as a person. I loved getting to know more about Yaga, her backstory, and the ways that she connects with people, allowing me to see her on a more human level.
During this story, we learn not just who Yaga is and where she comes from, but also how she connects to the land she’s from. Throughout the story, Russia is more than just a country, it’s almost like a family member in need of protection. Many of the characters are willing to lay down their lives to protect Russia, who is always referred to as “her,” and as having a long memory. The people of Russia survive not only brutal weather and living conditions, but also fight for their lands and their way of life. Despite clearly being a fantasy book, it’s also very much a historical fiction story, taking place not long after Russia came to be a country in it’s own right, but it still isn’t a very stable place.
When Yaga is called upon by her old friend, Anastasia, for help in curing her of a mysterious illness, Yaga doesn’t feel like she can say no. Especially not knowing that Anastasia is the balancing element on her husband, the unpredictable Tsar Ivan. He is the one man keeping Russia from teetering into all-out chaos, and Yaga is going to do everything in her power to make sure she keeps her friend healthy and protect Russia.
“Rumor had it that marriage had tamed the tsar’s naturally violent ways, that his tsaritsa restrained his worst impulses. Her intelligence and faith guided him. If something were to happen to her, it would not just be her sons who suffered. It would be Russia and her people.”
Yaga is also torn by the way Christianity has supplanted the old gods. Yaga herself is the daughter of one of the old gods, and it’s frustrating to her to see the worship wither away in favor of the new god.
“My usual reaction to icons was a stab of jealousy. This god was exalted, celebrated in resplendent wealth; my gods were forgotten, prayed to in shameful, guilt-ridden secrecy. He had triumphed while my gods had lost.”
Once Yaga reaches Moscow, what she discovers is so much worse than she even expected. She comes face to face with enemies and tricks at every turn, and it kept me on the edge of my seat. She’s forced to rely on all of her magic, her smarts, and her knowledge of people for stakes that are higher than ever.
“Here was a tsar whose crown had made him into a tragedy, a suspicious and vindictive man, volatile and unpredictable. He loved today only to hate tomorrow.”
Overall, this was a subversive and feminist story that pulled me in from start to finish. Instead of Yaga being the villain, she was the hero, fighting against her traditional antihero, Koshey Bessmertney (the Deathless), but also the system that dictates only one path for women, and working with a range of people to save a Russia that they all love. I loved seeing a lesbian couple featured prominently, especially during this time period, and the romance included in the book was beautifully done, capturing my heart without overwhelming the story. If you’re going to read one Baba Yaga retelling, THIS IS IT.