The Witch and the Tsar
reviewed by Pam Guynn
The Witch and the Tsar by Olesya Salnikova Gilmore is a reimagining of the witch Baba Yaga from Russian folk tales. Rather than a wicked witch who stole children, readers meet a powerful healer and witch with vulnerabilities called Yaga.
This retelling has a feminist slant to it. Other spirits and creatures from mythology and folk tales also play roles in this story set in Russia between 1560 and 1582. Yaga is a half-goddess possessing magic and living in a hut with chicken legs (Little Hen). With the hut and animals for company, she is lonely. Dyen, a wolf, and Noch, an owl, help her and communicate with her. Mortals seek her out only when they need healing.
Her old friend Anastasia, now married to Tsar Ivan Vasilyevich, visits Yaga, suffering from an unknown illness. Yaga realizes the fate of Russia is tied to Anastasia’s health and travels to Moscow to be with her. A volatile situation, an unknown antagonist, and the tsar being manipulated by one or more individuals are only the beginning of the problems.
The characterization was a mixed bag. Yaga didn’t seem to have the power, knowledge, and decision-making capability she should have had after living for centuries. Tsar Ivan the Terrible was well-done and brought chills to this reader.
The author weaves a story of light versus darkness that highlights Russian history, mythology, and folktales. The country seemed to come to life in this descriptive tale that has excellent world-building. However, the pacing was slow at times. Interspersed throughout the story are themes of power and ambition, expectations and rules for women, charity, hope, manipulation, mental health, blame, hatred, violence, murder, love, friendship, and family by choice as well as family by blood.
The narrative is rather straightforward and the plot didn’t have the twists and turns that I expected. However, the historical references to actual people and events added a significant layer of interest to the plot. The author’s note is especially helpful in getting insight into what the author wanted to accomplish as well as whether some events were real or fictional. There is also a glossary of key figures (historical, fairy tale, and mythological) as well as places that are key to the story. The historical content seemed well researched.
Overall, this was an engaging, violent, and emotional story that kept me engaged. Those that enjoy reimagined folk tales and mythology may want to consider this book as their next read.
Berkley Publishing Group – Ace and Olesya Salnikova Gilmore provided a complimentary digital ARC of this novel via NetGalley. This is my honest review. Opinions are mine alone and are not biased in any way. Publication date is currently set for September 20, 2022.