Olesya Salnikova GilmoreAug 18, 2023
The Witch and the Tsar
Any novel set in Russia during the reign of Ivan the Terrible (1533–1584) is an instant draw for me; that is, after all, the setting for most of my own fiction. Throw in Baba Yaga, the wicked witch of Russian folklore, and give her a makeover, and I am hooked.
Throw out the warts and the cackle, the flying mortar and pestle, the human skulls lighted from within, and even the appellation “Baba” (“granny,” but also “hag” or “crone”). These attributes, according to Gilmore, are part of a vicious plot to discredit her heroine, Yaga—the half-mortal, extremely long-lived daughter of the Earth goddess Mokosh. Born in the tenth century, before the introduction of Christianity cast the old Slavic deities into the shade, Yaga has become a noted healer who doesn’t appear a day over thirty in 1560, when the story begins. Over the centuries, she has acquired a frenemy, Koshey (Koshchei) the Deathless, who for reasons that become clear during the novel has chosen to break his prior deal with Yaga and interfere once more in human affairs, pushing Tsar Ivan the Terrible along his path of suspicion and terror. The first victim is Tsaritsa Anastasia, a friend of Yaga’s before Anastasia’s selection as Ivan’s first royal bride. It’s that connection that draws Yaga into the fight. But the forces opposing her are immortal as well as mortal, complicating her efforts.
It’s all very well done, although the impact of Ivan’s atrocities and of Koshey’s insistence on violence as necessary to the survival of Russia is only heightened by Putin’s ongoing aggression against Ukraine, which the author could not have anticipated when her book was accepted for publication. The history is mostly sound (allowing for the supernatural element) and the Russian correct, as one would expect of a native speaker. And there is the fun, for those in the know, of watching the author play with familiar (Little Hen, the hut on chicken feet) and new (Yaga’s immortal helpers, the wolf Dyen and the owl Noch, named for Day and Night, respectively) tropes from this set of ancient myths. If you like fantastical takes on history or reexaminations of literary villainesses, this novel is for you.
Olesya Salnikova Gilmore was born in Moscow, Russia, and raised in the United States. She writes historical fiction and fantasy inspired by Eastern European folklore. The Witch and the Tsar (Ace Books, 2022) is her debut novel.
C. P. Lesley is the author of two historical fiction series set during the childhood of Ivan the Terrible and three other novels. Her latest book, Song of the Storyteller, appeared in January 2023.