I’m fascinated by the historical depictions of women in history, especially women that were deemed witches. So when I was invited to take part in the blog tour of a retelling of the legendary Baba Yaga, I was intrigued. In Slavic folklore, Baba Yaga is often portrayed as an evil old hag, a witch that lives deep in the forest in a hut that stands on chicken legs. Yet in The Witch and the Tsar, the debut novel by Olesya Salnikova Gilmore, Yaga is full of love, compassion and humanity.
However what I really like about this novel is the way history interweaves with fantasy to tell the story of the brutal and bloody reign of the sixteenth century Tsar of Russia , Ivan IV Vasilyevich – more commonly known as Ivan the Terrible. Like many people I had heard of Ivan the Terrible, but really I didn’t know much more than the nick name. From reading this story seeped in folklore, I now feel I know a lot more. And crikey, he was vengeful, deranged and vulnerable.
When the novel opens, Yaga is a beautiful woman that looks no more than thirty even though she is centuries old. She is half mortal, half goddess, living alone in the forest in her hen house with chicken legs with only her animals as friends. The world of mortals has treated her badly, murdering her loving goddess mother out of fear and spreading malicious rumours about her. Hence Yaga has shied away from civilisation, choosing a life of solitude in the woods.
That is until an old friend knocks on Yaga’s door, Tsaritsa Anastasia, the wife of Tsar Ivan. Yaga has not seen Anastasia since her marriage over a decade ago and is shocked to discover the Tsaritsa is now on the brink of death. It soon becomes clear to Yaga that the Tsaritsa is being poisoned. Desperate to save her friend, Yaga is compelled to travel to Moscow to protect her. It is here that Yaga first encounters the Tsar. It is also here where she meets the eldest living son of the Tsar and Tsaritsa, whom she vows to protect.
The Witch and the Tsar is a novel full of enchantment, yet also danger and tragedy as it follows the next two decades of Ivan’s reign. Deception and evil leaves ‘the tsar to his own impulsivity, entirely uninhibited, vengeful and wild.‘ It is also a truly feminist story showcasing the determination of a Yaga, as well as her compassion and strength of her love and loyalty. It is also a love story to Russia as it is threatened by a volatile, tyrannical Tsar.
Thank you to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for inviting me to be involved in the blog tour of The Witch and the Tsar which was released on 8 December 2022 by HarperVoyager.
To follow the blog tour please see below.