The Witch and the Tsar by Olesya Salnikova Gilmore 

My Five Word TL:DR Review : Epic Retelling of Baba Yaga


The current trend for retelling stories from the perspective of either those characters who lived in the shadows or those that have been misrepresented continues here with a fictional account of Ivan the Terrible and the woman who helped to stop his period of tyranny.  Baba Yaga is a figure of folklore, a witch who ate children and lived in a hut with chicken legs.  As history shows us women with a knack for healing were often vilified and hunted and tormented and Baba Yaga is often described as a hideous crone – here we have a story with a different perspective. Here we have a woman, half immortal, daughter of a union between a human and a Goddess, with a special connection to the old spirits and Gods, a knack for healing and the ability to communicate with animals and birds.  So, to be clear, and I realise this is a long-winded way of saying this, if you’re expecting to read about the ferocious Wicked Witch of Russia then you may wish to look elsewhere.  This is a reimagining of a turbulent period of history told through the eyes of a woman who passionately cares about her homeland and will go to great lengths to stop the interfering Gods who are meddling in the lives of its people.

So, a little bit about the plot.  The story begins with Yaga, living in the woods and occasionally healing those with enough courage to seek her aid. She has long since learnt to mistrust humans and has become a solitary figure until she receives a visit from an old friend. Anastasia, wife to Ivan IV.  Yaga soon discovers that Anastasia is being poisoned and eventually makes the difficult decision to follow her back to Moscow to offer protection. Here she discovers the machinations of a life at court and the political maneuvering that is part and parcel of everyday life.  It soon becomes apparent that other forces are at play and if Yaga cannot protect Anastasia, the only person who can keep Ivan’s inner demons at bay, then Russia will fall into chaos.

For me, this is a story in two halves.  The first is, I guess something of a set up and an introduction to the characters.  The second is much more turbulent with death and destruction aplenty and a much more frenetic pace. Personally, I enjoyed the second half more than the first which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the first part of the story, just it felt a little slow in places.

I really enjoyed the writing and the descriptions which I felt helped to pull me into this strange world of wars and scheming Gods. And I also enjoyed the addition of extra characters such as the Tsar’s son along with some of the people that Yaga joined during their fight back against Ivan.  

In terms of criticisms.  Well, in some ways I felt like Yaga seemed less powerful than I’d imagined her to be – but having said that this is a retelling, and Yaga herself is adamant that she isn’t a witch, I think her powers lie more in communicating with the Gods and moving between different dimensions, also she finds herself almost leading the small rebellion at certain points formulating plans and the like.  

Overall, this was very easy to read, I had few expectations going into the read and also very little knowledge of Baba Yaga so I had no preconceptions about how she would come across.  I really loved the setting and the way the author pulls you into the story with her little details about everyday life and I thought this ended on a positive note.  I seriously would read more about Yaga and given that she ages very slowly I could quite easily see her popping up again at other historic points during Russia’s history.

I received a copy through Netgalley, courtesy of the publisher, for which my thanks.  The above is my own opinion.

My rating 4 of 5 stars




2 Responses to “The Witch and the Tsar by Olesya Salnikova Gilmore ”

  1. Deborah Makarios

    Sounds fascinating!
    I read up on the Tsars of the eighteenth century as part of the ground work for writing a fantasy novel set in a Russia-like land (The Wound of Words) and man! Talk about packing in the drama!
    Clearly, it wasn’t just the eighteenth century. This one’s going on my TBR list!

  2. maddalena@spaceandsorcery

    My own knowledge about Baba Yaga amount to the name and the chicken-legged house, so I’m certain I would enjoy this one since I have no expectations at all. Which can be a huge help sometimes… 😉
    Thanks for sharing!

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