Great characters never die. They invite us to retell and reimagine their stories for all kinds of reasons: for inspiration, for remembrance, for entertainment. It will always amaze me that some characters have been walking alongside us for centuries because they just do something for us. One of those characters, the terrifying witch of last resort Baba Yaga, gets her own feminist retelling in Olesya Salnikova Gilmore’s stunning The Witch and the Tsar. I’ve always loved stories about Baba Yaga because while she might kill and eat you, she might also help you with your heart’s desire. We never know which Yaga we’re going to get until after we’ve stepped through the door of her chicken-legged cabin. You have to keep reading to find out what kind of story you’re going to get.
Gilmore keeps a lot of Baba Yaga’s supernatural elements: her herb magic, her house with its chicken legs (adorably called Little Hen here), her ability to talk to animals, her wolf and owl companions. She also drops in Koschei the Deathless, Marya Morevna, and several cameo appearances by Slavic gods. But Gilmore puts Yaga into a real historical conflict against Ivan IV, better known to history as Ivan the Terrible.
We meet Yaga as we usually do. She’s at her cabin in the woods, offering cures and bits of magic to petitioners. As The Witch and the Tsar opens, she received a visit from two old friends. The first visiter, Koschei (spelled Koshey here), stretches the definition of “friend” pretty far but the second, the tsaritsa Anastasia Romanova Zakharyina-Yurieva, is definitely a friendly face. It’s readily apparent that the tsaritsa is deathly ill. Yaga manages to cure her but follows her queen back to Moscow to find out who has been poisoning the poor woman. At the kremlin, Yaga meets the unsettling Tsar Ivan and manages to stay on his good side until Anastasia’s death and things go violently to hell.
Ivan the Terrible is a formidable foe for Baba Yaga and her allies—Marya Morevna and a bunch of fed-up boyars and peasants who want the violence of the Oprichnina to end—because no one, Yaga included, is willing to bump off the tsar and get a new one (or go totally crazy and set up a nice constitutional monarchy or something). Interludes between Yaga’s chapters slowly reveal that there is something supernatural behind Ivan’s literally bloody madness. Selica is a woman who fate and myth have very much wronged. Centuries before Ivan came to the thrown, Selica was married off to Morozko, the god of winter. Every year, Selica has to kill her husband so that spring can come…and in order to do that, Selica has to die herself (twice). Most of the time, she lives in the Underworld and dreams of living in the world again. The only way she can be free of her story is to take the souls of the living. A lot of them. So she pulls strings and ensnares powerful beings to do her will.
Gilmore knows how to spin a tale. The characterization is top-notch. The research takes us back to the mid-1500s and an endless Russian winter without ever dragging things down. (In her afterword, Gilmore explains what she took from Russian history and Slavic mythology to create her astounding re-envisioning of Baba Yaga’s story for nerds like me who want all the stories.). The plot is epic in every sense of the world. Fans of folklore retellings—especially those who like their stories with a sharp bite—should immediately pre-order this book, put themselves on the library hold list, and do whatever they can to get this book into their hands. This book is a purely incredible read.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.