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September 20, 2022

The Witch and the Tsar by Olesya Salnikova Gilmore ~ a Review & Excerpt

by MK French

Yaga is a half goddess with magic, but heartbreak led her to live an isolated life in the forest. Her old friend Anastasia had married Tsar Ivan, and Anastasia's fate is tied to that of the Russian nation. Life in sixteenth-century Russia is unstable, and Ivan the Terrible is more volatile and tyrannical as Anastasia sickens. Yaga believes she's being poisoned, but Ivan is also being manipulated by darker forces.

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book cover of folklore novel The Witch and the Tsar by Olesya  Salnikova Gilmore
September 2022; Ace; 978-0593546970
audio, ebook, print (432 pages); folklore

Baba Yaga is a mainstay of Russian and Slavic stories, and if Western readers know of her, she's old and has the house that runs on chicken legs, or that she flies through the air in a mortar and pestle. Here, Yaga is a woman learning her place in Russia, how to use her magic and come into her power as she fights to save her country and those she cares about. The stories we know had been lies spread about her to drive her away, and except for very few people, Yaga shunned humanity to focus on her healing, ability to speak to animals, and memories of her mother Mokosh, the Earth Mother goddess that died when she was fifteen. Anastasia needs healing, as she's being poisoned, and Ivan's temper is barely kept in check when she's around. Interludes give us other perspectives than Yaga's, including that of Koshey the Deathless and the Lady of Death, who had usurped the realm of the dead from Lord Volos.

Moscow in the 1550s and 1560s is a thriving metropolis, though the court is at Ivan's whims. Even Yaga is subject to it, and historians will know of the terrible paranoia that he suffered from. Seeing traitors and conspiracies everywhere, he attacked his own people, slaughtering hundreds of thousands, launched wars against other nations, and would not listen to anyone proclaiming peace. Even priests of the Orthodox Church were subject to this, let alone the pagans like Yaga still working the old gods of stories. At the same time, it is these old gods and people of myth moving behind the scenes, ensuring that death would reign; the Lady of Death has a plan, and it requires human souls to make it happen. Trying to heal others and keep them alive in the midst of war, Yaga is immediately her enemy, even if she has no idea why or who it is. When she finds out, her magic is not infallible. But drawing from both sides of her heritage, she eventually figures out a way to save the people and places she comes to love.

The Witch and the Tsar is an amazing and intricate book, blending Russian history and mythology. It takes place long enough ago where that blend makes perfect sense, and it feels so natural, like that truly was why Ivan went off the deep end. Yaga feels like someone I'd love to get to know. Not a fearsome, crazed creature of myth. Even the other gods, distant as they could be, feel like characters in their own right. It's a wonderful story, and I loved reading it.  

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Read an excerpt from The Witch and the Tsar

Leaving the guard to keep watch outside, I ushered the tsaritsa into the darkened innards of my hut. Little Hen was used to clients coming and going and usually behaved herself enough by staying low to the ground so as not to frighten anyone. I hastily lit a few stubby beeswax candles. The scent of burning honey filled the air as I turned back to my royal visitor, swallowing hard.

Her tears had dried, her dull brown eyes taking on a chillingly distant look. Where were the flecks of gold, the quick wit, the uncharacteristic warmth of someone of her social standing? Her vibrancy was gone. Her skirts rustled like dried-up leaves as she sank onto the stool I offered her with the tired, defeated air of one who wishes never to rise again.

A few wandering chickens clucked at my feet. Noch hooted from a shadowy corner. The tsaritsa probably found this-me-uncivilized, disgustingly rustic, even.

But she only said, "It has been months. The doctors do not know what it is. I do." She struggled out of her cloak. "I am dying."

The bell-sleeved, flower-patterned letnik gown dragged her down as if bloated with seawater. A little shiver darted up my spine, almost prompting me to ask the tsaritsa how many dresses she wore. For wealthy women, it was customarily a minimum of three. But it was clear it was not the dresses plaguing her.

There was sweat on her brow, a redness at her mouth and eyes, though her skin was missing the telltale blotches and swellings of pestilence. An internal imbalance was possible, but those were the hardest to heal. An illness of the mind or spirit? Stooping under the dry herbs and flowers hanging from the slanted ceiling, I crossed the room to an iron cauldron bubbling over a fire that never went out. Iron possessed mystical and protective powers.

"It has been some time since you visited me," I said slowly, brushing aside a purple lavender blossom. "Thirteen years?"

"With the wedding, I . . ."

"I have heard weddings eat into time like moths. What about after? I tended to your family for years. To be forgotten so quickly by you and your mother was quite the revelation." I bent over the cauldron and ladled out hot water into a bowl fashioned from bone. Steam billowed into my face as I flushed with resentment. Or maybe disappointment.

How would the great Earth Goddess Mokosh feel about such neglect? I thought about my beloved mother, the protector of women-of their work and destiny, the birth of their children. I glanced up at her symbol, the wooden horse's head hanging above the cauldron.

We provide succor regardless of wounded pride, she had once told me. Pride is an illusion and the path to conceit. Gods may be guilty of it, Yaga, but not you.

But our gods, the ancient ones born of the Universe, had been worshipped then. While Mokosh had not spoken of it, tales say she helped to create the Earth with Perun, the Supreme God and Lord of the Heavens, and many other gods besides. Perun forged the sky with his thunderbolts; Mokosh gave birth to the land. Her spindle spun the cloth of humanity, thread by thread, woman by woman, life to death, generation after generation. She was Moist Earth, mother of all living things and my actual mother.

Eventually, mortals began to worship the Christian god. While some believed in the old gods as well as him, I doubted the tsaritsa was of their number, living as she did in the center of the Orthodox Christian faith in Russia. Yet before her ascent to the court, she had gladly partaken of what infuriatingly limited talents I had inherited from Mokosh.

"I made you a tsaritsa," I said. "I provided your mother with the herbs and charms that got the court to take notice of a dead aristocrat's daughter. Or have you forgotten?"

Excerpted from The Witch and the Tsar by Olesya Salnikova Gilmore Copyright © 2022 by Olesya Salnikova Gilmore. Excerpted by permission of Ace. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Born and raised in New York City, M.K. French started writing stories when very young, dreaming of different worlds and places to visit. She always had an interest in folklore, fairy tales, and the macabre, which has definitely influenced her work. She currently lives in the Midwest with her husband, three young children, and a golden retriever.

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