THE WITCH AND THE TSAR by Olesya Salnikova Gilmore (BOOK REVIEW)
Sometimes the true story is cloaked in lies to hide its power
The Witch and the Tsar is Olesya Salnikova Gilmore’s debut historical fantasy novel. It tells the story of Yaga Mokoshevna, the half mortal daughter of the Earth Mother goddess. In her hut upon chicken legs, in her glade surrounded by skulls and accompanied by her wolf and owl companions, Yaga heals all those who come to her for aid. They call her Baba Yaga, expecting an old crone with an iron nose and an appetite for children.
What we find instead is a woman still learning to live with the grief of losing her mother, living out a self-banishment after years of betrayal and abuse at the hands of mortals. Her existence is a lonely one living on the fringes and not fitting in to either world: her immortality and magic too frightening for a human world becoming increasingly secular as Christianity grips her country; too mortal to maintain her connection to the pantheon of gods following her mother’s death and the weakening of the gods as the people cease believing.
When one of her few mortal friends returns to her after some years seeking her aid, Yaga will do anything to protect her. Anastasia is the tsaritsa, her husband Ivan the tsar of all Russia. It was Yaga who helped Anastasia with enchantments to catch the eye of the then prince, and hasn’t seen her friend since she left for Moscow. But now, someone in the Kremlin is poisoning her, so Yaga follows her back into civilisation.
Little is Yaga to know that she is about to step into not just a political battle for Anastasia’s life, but a battle between the gods themselves as they fight for what little power remains to them. The Lord of Death is absent from his throne, a new ruler in his place who sees the potential in Ivan to provide them with the souls they need to grain strength. The Lord of Winter stalks through summer, and an old immortal flame from Yaga’s past all unite to bring Russia to her knees.
From the cover you might expect this to be a quaint Slavic folklore retelling. But that’s doing a massive injustice to what Gilmore has achieved here. She takes us deep into the pre-Christian beliefs of western Russia. She explores not only the mythology surrounding the Baba Yaga figure, but that of other figures from Slavic folklore also – Morozko, Koschei the Immortal, Marya Morevna. This is a feminist retelling of Yaga, deconstructing the conventional stories around the figure and exposing the ostracised wise woman behind them. Gilmore sets out to do for Baba Yaga what Miller did for Circe, Saint for Ariadne, North for Penelope… and achieves it beautifully.
In setting her story during the reign of the infamous Ivan the Terrible, Gilmore grounds her characters in a real, visceral historical setting. Ivan’s Kremlin is claustrophobic, paranoia stalks the halls. The palaces are suffocating, and you feel the stifling fear of the court. When Yaga escapes, her relief is that much more palpable, being shared with the reader. Russia’s past is a turbulent one, indeed an infliction the country seems incapable of escaping, and it was fascinating to learn more. Gilmore infuses her story with real historical characters and events. It’s a rich and heady blend of historical fiction and mythological retelling. It’s a slower story to be savoured, its depths appreciated.
The Witch and the Tsar is out today from HarperVoyager
Order your copy HERE