The Witch and the Tsar by Olesya Salnikova Gilmore
“Solid” is the best description I can give for The Witch and the Tsar by Olesya Salnikova Gilmore, a debut novel that shows flashes of hitting its potential, particularly in its folkloric elements, but overall feels a bit flat and overlong.
A retelling of the Baba Yaga mythos, the story mostly takes place during the reign of Ivan the Terrible (1500s), though there are flashbacks to earlier times, thanks to the fact that the main character (who prefers Yaga to Baba Yaga) is immortal, daughter of a human and the Earth goddess Mokosh, dead now for some years. Since then Yaga has been alone, save for her wolf and owl, and quietly helping the people nearby, especially the women. What precipitates her re-entry into the world is a visit from Anastasia, whom Yaga had helped long ago and set her on the path to her current role as Tsarina (Ivan’s wife).
Anastasia is apparently being poisoned, and though Yaga cures her during the visit, she decides to travel to Moscow to keep an eye on her and learn who the poisoner might be, especially when she learns her old lover/foe Koshey (the Deathless) is acting as an advisor to Ivan under the name Konstantin. Eventually Yaga becomes embroiled in two battles — one is against the Tsar, who becomes ever more paranoid and tyrannical and starts massacring his own people while also entangling them in horrific wars; the other is against the supernatural forces, gods and others, who are behind Ivan’s atrocities. Either or both can see the end of Russia if Yaga and her friends can’t stop what is happening.
My favorite aspect of Gilmore’s novel was her use of Slavic folklore, going well beyond the Yaga stories and including various gods, such as her mother and Volos the god of death, along with a few lesser supernatural beings. While I knew the Yaga and Deathless stories pretty well, these gods were mostly unfamiliar to me, adding a welcome sense of freshness. I also thought these were the moments in the novel where Gilmore’s writing shone the strongest. Something about these characters and their worlds brought out the best in Gilmore in terms of vivid settings, lyrical language, engaging dialogue. So much so I wish we had spent more time with both the characters and the settings.
Gilmore also does a nice job with two characters — Koshey and another I won’t detail as it’s a plot revelation — in terms of painting outside the villain lines, allowing them some complexity of character beyond “bad person”. Again, I don’t want to go into details so as to avoid spoilers.
Beyond these positives, The Witch and the Tsar had several issues. One is the main character. While I understand the desire to reclaim or retell old characters/tales, especially from a feminist slant (the best book I read last month was Ithaca by Claire North which did just that for several Greek women), it seems to me that can’t be a complete erasure of the character. Honestly, if you removed the name and the famous Baba Yaga chicken-leg hut that is referenced in a handful of lines, one would never know this was a retelling of Baba Yaga. And I mean that not solely in the sense of the specific Baba Yaga characteristics that have grown up over time, such as her trickster nature, but also in the more general sense that I never once had a sense that this character had lived centuries. In voice and personality and action she felt like any young woman; not a woman who had gone through multiple lifetimes of experiences.
As noted in the intro, the book, outside of the scenes with the old gods, felt very flat, both in terms of style/language and plotting, with a lot of summarizing, a lot of telling, a lot of this happened then this then this. Little compelled, much was predictable (even beyond what one could predict based on the historical events), the romance didn’t feel earned or true, and scenes that had some promise of rich emotionality often fell short, though I don’t want to give example so as not to spoil events (I see the irony saying so after calling much of the novel predictable). Finally, the language that felt too prosaic save in the scenes noted was also marred by some jarringly modern usages, as when Yaga says she didn’t have a “crush” on someone (an example as well of how she doesn’t feel like a centuries-old woman) or when a character refers to “multiple dimensions”, a parlance that I don’t believe would have been used at this time.
The issues weren’t prominent enough to make The Witch and the Tsar a “bad” book, but they constrained my ability to fully enjoy it, which probably contributed to the sense of it being too long, as did some issues with pacing. On the other hand, Gilmore shows enough flashes of potential in the descriptions of the old gods and in the treatment of the book’s villains that while I can’t enthusiastically recommend this book, I would be interested in seeing what Gilmore does next.
As I started reading your review the first thing that occurred to me was that this didn’t sound like Baba Yaga. Baba Yaga wasn’t always helpful, as I understand it, or at least reluctant, even when it came to helping women. She had her own motivations and opinions. She’s not just a Rescuer of Women but a powerful, magical force of nature, and mortals contact her at their peril.
Yeah– I can see getting rid of some of the built-in “women are terrible” stuff, but there’s so much beyond that for her. It felt like either call her Baba Yaga and keep some of those truly “mythic” elements or drop the name and just make the character a wholly original young demi-god with powers (though I understand the marketing motivation for using Baba Yaga)