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The Witch and the Tsar
By: Olesya Salnikova Gilmore
Published: September 20, 2022
Genre: Historical Fiction, Fantasy, Folklore
It no longer mattered whether people spread their tales about me or how I lived. I knew who I was,…
I was Baba Yaga, and she was me, (49).
Imagine yourself browsing through upcoming books. Now, in most cases, many readers search for favorite authors and/or they come across eye-catching book covers. However, as many of us readers know, “book cover reveals” are becoming more and more popular, so readers started to rely more on the book’s title and/or the book’s description to determine whether or not it should be added to their TBR stack. Olesya Salnikova Gilmore’s debut novel, The Witch and the Tsar, has an eye-catching title and an intriguing description. In short, this novel is a historical fantasy about two of Russia’s most infamous figures—both from folklore and from history: the witch, Baba Yaga; and, Tsar Ivan IV of Russia, also known as “Ivan, the Terrible.”
The protagonist in this novel is Yaga. That is correct; this story takes place before Yaga “earns” the “title,” Baba(short for babushka, or “old woman”). That being said, Yaga is (half) immortal—her father was mortal, and her mother was a goddess (in this story, she is Mokosh, the Earth Mother and the goddess of fertility)—and she has lived for centuries, which adds to the rumors that she is a “baba.” Regardless of the legends and the lies about Yaga, she is a wise woman, a healer, and a demigod who lives amongst the mortals and assists them whenever she can. At the beginning of this narrative, someone does seek Yaga for help. It is none other than Anastasia Romanovna Zakharyina-Yurieva—the Tsaritsa and wife of Tsar Ivan IV of Russia. The Tsaritsa and Yaga are old friends, and Anastasia needs Yaga’s help to determine who and what is poisoning her. Yaga is wise enough to keep most of the poison at bay, but the tsaritsa cannot remain in the woods with her, so Yaga agrees to travel to Moscow in order to keep a close eye on the Anastasia. Once in Moscow, Yaga is introduced to 2 people. First is Tsar Ivan Vasilyevich IV; and, second is the Tsar’s advisor—Boyar Konstantin Buyanovich. In addition, Yaga is introduced to Kira Armikovna, the Tsaritsa’s Head of Household. Yaga discusses her fears both with Konstantin and with Kira; and, both of them agree to help Yaga find the culprit responsible for poisoning Anastasia. Meanwhile, Yaga speaks with Konstantin about something else, his latest identity. Konstantin Buyanovich is actually Koshey Bessmertny, another immortal. In fact, the 2 demigods have known each other for centuries. Unfortunately, like some long-term friendships, distance and differences have separated them only for them to reunite under coincidental circumstances. Yet, now it seems they want the same thing for different reasons. Yaga wants to protect Anastasia to save Russia from a nefarious future, and Koshey wants to protect the Tsar to keep Russia from falling into a ruinous future. Yaga does everything she can to save the tsaritsa and to protect her sons—Ivanushka and Fyodor—and Koshey plays a larger role in the Tsar’s group of advisors. By 1560, the Tsaritsa’s health has taken a turn for the worse, and several members of the council have been reinstated, including a boyar by the name of Aleksey Fyodorovich. At this point, due to her lack of power, Yaga knows the inevitable is about to happen and she cannot save herself or Anastasia. And, the unknown has caused both Koshey and Tsar Ivan to blame “Baba” Yaga for what will be the beginning of the Tsar’s violent rule. Yaga realizes she is not powerful enough to save her friend, but after her visions and her experiences at court, Yaga is determined to protect Anastasia’s sons and Russia by involving the remaining immortals. Yaga needs to decide how much of her immortal heritage she is willing to claim, even if that heritage means other mortals will see Yaga as a vedma, then she will do so in order to protect those she cares about. Yaga is more than what history and folklore made her out to be, and yet there is a reason why the world recognizes Baba Yaga and not Yaga.
There are 2 plots in this novel, and they demonstrate the balance of history and culture. The first plot delves into Yaga’s life as she chooses to spend time in isolation in her home—which is on chicken legs—in the woods as an immortal, and her time amongst mortals as she experiences what they are going through (in that current century) as Yaga uses all of her gifts and her skills to help them survive. The second plot surrounds Tsar Ivan Vasilyevich IVs reign and the events which (might have) cause his madness which affects his rule, thus leaving him known for posterity as “Ivan the Terrible.” This plot presents Tsar Ivan IV at his lowest and he takes out his deranged eccentricities on the denizens of Russia, including his eldest son—Ivanushka. There is one subplot in this novel, and it is essential for the narrative because it is necessary for the development of both plots. Yaga’s mother was one of the goddesses who taught Yaga what she could do before her death (yes, these immortals can die). This subplot presents Yaga as she travels between realms gaining knowledge and distributing what she has learned with the mortals she travels with throughout Russia. Yaga’s life as an immortal has given her wisdom on how to survive harsh conditions and environments. But now, Yaga has to find a way to learn new things in order to confront a threat that requires more than Yaga’s static lifestyle. This subplot not only connects the 2 plots, but also provides Yaga with her growth as a character.
The narrative is told from Yaga’s point-of-view in the present. At the same time, the narrative is presented in chronicle form with dates from our current calendar and history. This is because the narrative’s sequence follows the dates of Tsar Ivan IV’s reign as from the cause of the Tsar’s grief and madness (over the death of his first wife), to his infamous reign of terror—which would carry on for over 20 years. Both the time of year and specific dates highlight actual moments in Russia’s history, presented from Yaga’s stream-of-consciousness. Regardless of the historical events, Yaga is the narrator and is experiencing—not witnessing—these events (especially, the moments of war and the discussion amongst the gods). Yaga is a reliable narrator whose narrative can be followed easily.
The style Olesya Salnikova Gilmore uses for The Witch and the Tsar contains the elements found within the historical fantasy subgenre. However, the fantastical element in this novel is based on Russian folklore. Russians myths, folktales, and rituals make up the fantasy in this narrative. The names of locations and individuals are based on Russian history (and can be searched and researched on the Internet, or at your local library). In addition, the use of Russian words and language adds more to the authenticity the author provides in her novel. The result is a historical fantasy that retells the story of both Baba Yaga and Ivan the Terrible within the context of Russian culture. The mood in this novel is threatening. From the first chapter the audience learns what the (first) conflict is and realizes the (potential) consequences if that conflict does not have a positive resolution. Later on, when war breaks out, the protagonist and the other characters experience the horrific results of warfare to the point where certain scenes reflect a grimdark atmosphere. The tone in this novel is resistance. Ivan the Terrible’s acts of violence and madness was influenced by his actions (grief and paranoia) and by those of (some of) the immortals (divine intervention). In turn, several characters—including the protagonist (and the antagonist)—resist against the acts of cruelty for peace and for survival. Yaga trains to fight with and against the remaining immortals. The mortals form guerillas to fight back against Tsar Ivan’s army. And, the remaining immortals decide whether or not it’s worth going against their embodiment to gain their desires. These styles offer a reading experience that is distinct yet familiar to fantasy readers.
The appeal for The Witch and the Tsar will be positive. Fans of historical fantasy, especially those who read and enjoyed Katherine Arden’s Winternight Trilogy should read this book. It should be mentioned that this novel is NOT a retelling of the lore of Baba Yaga, but a fictionalized history of the role Yaga might have had during one of Russia’s most pivotal moments in history. In other words, fans of She Who Became the Sun and Ring Shout will probably enjoy this book compared to fans of Circe, Kaikeyi, and The Book of Gothel. As I mentioned before, historical fantasy is a subgenre that continues to grow both in content and in popularity; and, Gilmore’s novel is an excellent addition to its canon. I believe as long as there is curiosity surrounding both Baba Yaga and/or Ivan the Terrible, this book will be read by piqued individuals.
The Witch and the Tsar is an amazing debut novel that not only balances history and fantasy, but also takes 2 notorious figures and puts them on opposing sides of a conflict that will change an empire forever. Olesya Salnikova Gilmore writes a convincing historical fiction narrative in which actual people could have been interacting with immortal beings and have not realized it. From the book’s title to the dates that mark pivotal moments in history, this story will keep readers immersed in it until its end. It will leave you asking where Baba Yaga’s izbushka is right now.
My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!
9 thoughts on “Why You Need to Read: “The Witch and the Tsar””
It sounds wonderful! So glad you enjoyed it.
It’s a great and a creative story!
This is such a fantastic review! I loved how Gilmore interwove folklore and history and politics so seamlessly in this book, and did it all in a way that was so easy to follow, especially for readers (like me) who weren’t familiar with the history and politics of the location/time period, as well as the old religious practices of Russia. I couldn’t help but love Yaga and her found family.
The author did a get job blending and separating all of the elements of her story.
Such a thorough review. The book sounds so good!
I enjoyed it a lot! If you like historical fiction, then I believe you’ll enjoy the book, too.
I think I will never get tired of historical fantasy set in this part of the world! I was certainly a fan of the Winternight trilogy. I’ll keep an eye out for this one.
I believe you’ll enjoy this book! I had to compare this book to the “Winternight” Trilogy! I couldn’t help it.