Review by Lissa Sloan: The Witch & The Tsar by Olesya Salnikova Gilmore
If you are familiar with Baba Yaga, you may think she’s a terrifying, iron-toothed, big-nosed witch who just might help you on your quest if you are very, very good. On the other hand, she might put you in her oven and eat you. But when you pick up The Witch and the Tsar, be prepared to think again. Olesya Salnikova Gilmore's debut novel features a reimagined Baba Yaga in Ivan the Terrible's Russia, and her story is very different than you might expect. It begins in the woods where Yaga, a hundreds-of-years-old half-human, half-goddess, lives in her famous chicken-legged hut, Little Hen. Her only other companions are Noch, a sharp-tongued owl, and Dyen, a huge, ever-loyal wolf. Though Yaga keeps her distance from the mortals, she always helps those who come in search of her healing magic. But everything changes when her friend Anastasia, wife of the Tsar, comes to beg for her aid. The young Tsaritsa is dying, and no one but Yaga can help.
Ivan the Terrible, 16th century Russia, and Russian mythology are all subjects I know very little about. But I love to learn, and I really love to be transported somewhere new (or old), and The Witch and the Tsar doesn’t disappoint. It features an impressive cast of complex real-life figures like Ivan the Terrible appearing side by side with Russian fairy tale characters like warrior princess Marya Morevna and sometime villain Koshey the Deathless. These multilayered and fascinating characters were among my favorites in the book. Giving Yaga a place in the Russian pantheon of immortals and entwining them in historical events makes for an intriguing story I’d recommend to fans of Kate Forsyth, Katherine Arden, and Mary McMyne. The Witch and the Tsar is a rich blend of history and fairy tales, and at its heart is a flesh and blood woman who must risk being human.
Lissa Sloan is the author of Glass and Feathers, a novel that tells the story of Cinderella after the “happily ever after.” The Enchanted Press will publish it next February.