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Book: “The Witch and the Tsar” by Olesya Salnikova Gilmore
Publishing Info: Ace, September 2022
Where Did We Get This Book: We received eARCs from NetGalley and Edelweiss+.
Book Description: 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.
This was a little bit of a gamble for me, as I knew that it was fantasy, and I knew that it was going to be pretty heavy on Russian mythology for inspiration. And given that I’m not a huge fantasy person, and my book of Russian myths and fairytales has sat on my shelf unopened for years, I was rolling the dice. BUT, it also follows Yaga, a witch, and I DO LOVE WITCHES. So I took a chance on this one, and the bag was… pretty mixed.
The positives are definitely ample! For one, I liked Yaga as our protagonist. She’s a healer who is half immortal and has done her best to keep people around her safe, including her old friend Anastasia who is the Tsar’s wife, and who is being poisoned. Yaga, unfortunately, has to learn that not everyone has the same noble heart, and most of this book is her trying to survive not only against a spiraling Ivan the Terrible (who is doing unthinkable things in Russia; what a time to be reading this, given the guy in charge of Russia right now), but also other immortals and gods and demi gods. I liked how Gilmore subverted some of the mythologies to reflect lies and propaganda that the Orthodox Russian Church was spewing to undercut the non-Christian theologies of the time. I know that the fact Yaga has been de-aged from crone to young woman has frustrated some readers, which I definitely get, but I kind of like the idea of her reputation of being a cruel crone is actually a lie to make people distrust a woman who is actually a midwife, healer, and powerful woman in a community.
But overall, I think that I didn’t have enough working knowledge of the mythology (and even the history! I don’t know much about Russian history, honestly), and that meant that I couldn’t fully appreciate what Gilmore was trying to do. I also thought that it was a little ambling at times as the story went on. It wasn’t really a slog, but I did sometimes find myself skimming a bit to get through specific scenes.
So overall, “The Witch and the Tsar” was an okay read, but I’m not sure I got everything I could have gotten from it. Maybe I need to go grab that unopened book of Russian folklore off my shelf.
Me, I’m the reader frustrated by the aged-down Yaga! But before I get to that, let’s start with my general impression. Unlike Kate, everything about this book is directly up my alley, so it was a bit of a no-brainer that I was going to read it either way. But I was happy she suggested we joint review it, since I think that has left us in an interesting position now. Since…the very fact that this was up my alley might be why I wasn’t this book’s biggest fan? More precisely, I feel like I’ve read this book before and better versions of it.
For example, while I generally appreciate the commentary on wise women and healers and how these women were undercut by the incoming Christian church in its various forms, I’ve also read many, many fantasy novels that have covered this very thing. And in very similar, unfortunately better, ways. So for me, many aspects of this book just struck chords that were too familiar to other, better stories, leaving me in a constant state of comparison. A big one was “The Bear and the Nightingale” and that trilogy, a series that is also Russian history/folklore inspired and tackles these same conversion points between Christianity, old world religion, and the demonization of women who were healers or stood out in any other way.
Beyond that, I had a hard time connecting to Yaga. Yes, part of me was simply disappointed that she was a young woman because I’ve read a million and one novels about young women in fantasy and it’s always refreshing to read about different age groups (people over 30 exist! especially older women! things happen to them and there is a unique power and experience to be mined there!). But beyond that, Yaga, while still young-looking, is in fact meant to be quite old. And yet she routinely seemed to be quite naive in a way that I found hard to reconcile with the amount of lived experience she should have under her belt at this point.
I also wish we had gotten a bit more from the Russian folklore, as Kate mentioned. I’m pretty familiar with a lot of it, simply due to the fact that it’s had a bit of a run recently as a go-to in fantasy fiction. But there were certain elements that I felt were just plunked down into the story without much thought or creativity. Like the house with chicken legs just kind of appears? I’ve read some pretty interesting takes on this entire concept (Orson Scott Card’s “Enchantment” probably has the most creative one I’ve seen at this point), but this book just seemed to skip over some of these opportunities.
All in all, my conclusion is the same as Kate’s. This wasn’t a slog of a read by any means, but by the time I finished it, I realized I spent most of the book thinking about other, similar stories and wishing this was more like those.
Kate’s Rating 6: I liked Yaga as a protagonist and I liked the way Gilmore subverted Russian myth and folklore, but it felt ambling at times, and I think I would have gotten more if I were more familiar with the mythology.
Serena’s Rating 6: If you haven’t read much Russian fantasy folklore, this might appeal to you. But there are better examples out there that left this one feeling uncomfortably derivative at times.
“The Witch and the Tsar” is included on the Goodreads lists “Mythological Re-Imaginings” and “Wise Women, Witches, Midwives, Healers, and Strong Girls”.