The Witch and the Tsar by Olesya Salnikova Gilmore: Exquisite Blend of Myth and History

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 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.

In this debut novel, Olesya Salnikova Gilmore weaves a compelling feminist retelling of the infamous Baba Yaga, rooting her in the Russian culture, showing how easily a woman with power can easily be misconstrued by the world around her. The novel is an exquisite blend of myth and history. By making her a half goddess, it also allows the author to bring to life the Russian mythology. I loved the way Olesya Salnikova Gilmore blends together the history and culture of Russia with a rich re-imagining of Baba Yaga. The magical elements and the history resonate with authenticity and realism. 

While I love the details and the character of Baba Yaga, I did find the story slower. The characters and the novel are driven more by exposition than action. While this is critical to tell the sweeping history of the time, to find a balance between fantasy and knowledge, it does mean there is less action and more of Yaga’s thoughts. But the charismatic and powerful character of Baba Yaga is compelling to balance the slower moments in the novel. 

If you love historical fantasy, the tale of Baba Yaga, this novel will envelop you into the world of Russia. It is dripping with the rich history and culture of the region, told from the viewpoint of an authentic point of view. The novel gives a balanced view of Baba Yaga, re-inventing her as a woman and a witch. If you don’t mind more exposition, I recommend you check out this beautiful novel. 

Rating: 4.5 wars out of 5. 

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