Review copy was received from NetGalley. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
The Witch and the Tsar by Oleysa Salnikova Gilmore
Narrator: Katia Kapustin
Published by Ace, Penguin Audio on September 20, 2022
Length: 13 hours, 56 minutes
Format: Audiobook, eARC
Amazon, Audible, Libro.fm, Barnes & Noble, Apple
As a half-goddess possessing magic, Yaga is used to living on her own, her prior entanglements with mortals having led to heartbreak. She mostly keeps to her hut in the woods, where those in need of healing seek her out, even as they spread rumors about her supposed cruelty and wicked spells. But when her old friend Anastasia—now the wife of the tsar, and suffering from a mysterious illness—arrives in her forest desperate for her protection, Yaga realizes the fate of all of Russia is tied to Anastasia’s. Yaga must step out of the shadows to protect the land she loves.
As she travels to Moscow, Yaga witnesses a sixteenth century Russia on the brink of chaos. Tsar Ivan—soon to become Ivan the Terrible—grows more volatile and tyrannical by the day, and Yaga believes the tsaritsa is being poisoned by an unknown enemy. But what Yaga cannot know is that Ivan is being manipulated by powers far older and more fearsome than anyone can imagine.
Olesya Salnikova Gilmore weaves a rich tapestry of mythology and Russian history, reclaiming and reinventing the infamous Baba Yaga, and bringing to life a vibrant and tumultuous Russia, where old gods and new tyrants vie for power. This fierce and compelling novel draws from the timeless lore to create a heroine for the modern day, fighting to save her country and those she loves from oppression while also finding her true purpose as a goddess, a witch, and a woman.
I enjoyed this sort of retelling of the story of Baba Yaga. The Witch and the Tsar has the Russian mythology feel like books by Naomi Novik (Spinning Silver), and Katherine Arden (The Winternight Trilogy) and oddly, some of the folklore is even in the Robin LeFever’s Fair Assassins series. Of course, this book has its own story and focus. I was rooting for Yaga from the beginning and feared for her as she is half mortal, although mostly immortal. I loved the magics and healing she could provide to people.
I really appreciated the author note at the end, sharing how things tied closely to real events during the time period with Ivan the Terrible. It is historical fiction with the way of life kept realistic with the actual ways. The blend of Russian history with the folklore is enjoyable.
Baba Yaga experiences a lot of personal growth over time. Since her mother died, she has lived alone in the woods. To save her country and the people she loves, she has to come out of her safe solitude. So she goes to Moscow to try to heal her friend, the Tsar’s wife. She gets entangled in the manipulations of the gods and the Tsar. She goes North to learn more of her magic. When she returns, she joins a group fighting the abuses and destruction wreaked by the Tsar, Ivan the Terrible.
Yaga experiences a lot during these battles with her fellow fighters, developing solid relationships. She has to try to work with the gods to stop their machinations, and to do it, she learns much about her own family history. The ending was more favorable than I expected. Even so, there were a lot of deaths. War is not a positive result on the people, agricultural or cities.
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?”
This narrator is new to me. I enjoyed the Russian sounding accent but I’m not knowledgeable enough to know if it is authentic. The primary point of view was Baba Yaga so mostly we were in her consciousness, other than very brief bits of dialogue. Everything felt comfortably toned for male and female voice. I was able to listen at my usual 1.5x speed.
Listen to a clip: HERE
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