The Witch and the Tsar by Olesya Salnikova Gilmore

I was drawn to this book by the pretty cover, but also because it sounded similar to Katherine Arden’s Winternight trilogy, which I loved. Set in 16th century Russia, during the reign of Ivan the Terrible, The Witch and the Tsar is a blend of history, fantasy and folklore featuring as its heroine the legendary Baba Yaga. Unlike the traditional idea of Baba Yaga as a ferocious old witch who eats children, however, Moscow-born author Olesya Salnikova Gilmore’s portrayal is something very different.

We first meet Yaga, as she is known, living alone in a forest with her wolf Dyen, owl Noch, and Little Hen, a living hut who stands on chicken legs and has a mind of her own. Half-mortal and half-goddess, Yaga has been badly treated in the past so has chosen a life of solitude, interacting with other people only when they come and seek out her knowledge of healing and potions. She is reluctantly drawn back into society when an old friend, the Tsaritsa Anastasia – wife of Tsar Ivan IV – comes to her to ask for help. Convinced that Anastasia is being poisoned by someone at court, Yaga decides to accompany her friend on the journey back to Moscow to keep her safe.

Returning to the world from which she has hidden away for so long, Yaga is dismayed by the evil she senses all around her. Unsettled by an encounter with a former adversary, Koshey Bessmertny (usually known in Slavic myth as Koschei the Deathless), she is then introduced to Ivan Vasilyevich, the man who will later become Ivan the Terrible, and is struck by his power and volatility. When tragedy strikes the Russian court, Ivan becomes more unstable and launches a campaign of terror with his band of oprichniki burning, raiding and pillaging Russia’s towns and cities. It seems that Yaga is the only one who can stop him, but to do so she will have to learn things about herself and her family that she would prefer not to uncover.

I enjoyed some aspects of The Witch and the Tsar, but others not so much. I wasn’t sure what to think of Yaga herself. On the one hand, it’s good to see a much-maligned character given a more sympathetic interpretation; on the other, Gilmore’s Yaga has so little in common with the mythical Baba Yaga she’s really not the same character at all. Also, we are told that although she has the appearance of a young woman, she has actually lived for hundreds of years – yet she never sounds, thinks or behaves the way I would expect someone with centuries of wisdom and experience to sound, think and behave. She just feels like the young woman she appears to be.

It was interesting to see how Gilmore works characters from other Russian and Slavic myths into the story. As well as Koschei the Deathless, we meet Marya Morevna, Morozko the frost demon, the god Volos, the house spirit Kikimora and others. The fantasy/mythology element becomes very dominant in the second half of the book, more than I would have preferred, but Gilmore does a good job of tying it together with the historical storyline, showing how the actions of the gods and demons are linked to the actions of Ivan and his oprichniki. I was particularly intrigued by the character of Ivanushka, the Tsar’s son and heir; Yaga promises Anastasia she will protect him, but we know from history that his story will take a tragic turn.

I think The Witch and the Tsar is worth reading if you’re interested in Russian history and mythology, but naturally I couldn’t help comparing it to Katherine Arden’s trilogy (beginning with The Bear and the Nightingale) which I found much more enjoyable.

Thanks to HarperVoyager for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

10 thoughts on “The Witch and the Tsar by Olesya Salnikova Gilmore

  1. mallikabooks15 says:

    This did sound promising so I’m sorry to see it didn’t turn out as good. I am still reading the Winternight books (only the first read so far) which I’m really enjoying so will likely work my way through those first

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