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.
This is the story of Baba Yaga only, it’s not the tale we know. Instead of an old crone who curses people, our Yaga is a half-goddess, blessed with immortal life she spends her time in solitude after prior engagements with mortals leading to heartbreak. Instead of curses, she makes potions to help the sick, so when her old friend Anastasia, now Tsarita of Russia arrives asking for help with her mysterious illness, Yaga finds herself forsaking her home in the woods for one in the capital city of Moscow. When she arrives, Yaga realises that Russia is in chaos, Tsar Ivan, soon to become Ivan the Terrible is a man determined to see enemies in every shadow, volatile and angry, but what Yaga does not yet know is that there is a bigger power behind Ivan. One that has set it’s sights on not just Russia, but Yaga herself. Yaga will have to acknowledge both sides of herself, mortal and immortal, seeing the strength in both, if she is to save Russia, herself and those she loves.
Yaga was such a fantastic POV to read this story from. She is someone who, after being named Baba Yaga and set out from the only home she knew, has lived her life in somewhat solitude. Still open to those in need, but no longer travelling through towns offering her help. Her only companions are her house with legs named little Hen, Dyen and Noch, a wolf and owl respectively. She is someone who is incredibly old, and yet reads as incredibly young in a lot of ways. Her determination to be alone, her lack of knowledge for certain things, but she also holds a wisdom that can only come with age. As I said before, she is not the Baba Yaga you will read about in Russian fairy tales, although the author does give some credence as to where that imagery came from, but rather a young women whom too many men felt threatened by and the only way they saw to discredit her was to sow fear.
The story is told solely from her POV, except for a few chapters that are shown as ‘interludes.’ These chapters were SO incredibly well done. They not only added to Yaga’s own story, but gave us a larger insight into the world of the gods, the folklore and history of the world as well as being used as some truly epic foreshadowing. But I think Gilmore’s portrayal of Ivan was what really stood out to me. He is a truly scary character. His decent into madness was shown so incredibly well, and although he only appears in the story minimally, his scenes and actions had the hair standing up on the back of my neck.
You all know me, I am a sucker for anything that features folklore and The Witch and the Tsar has it in spades. I was shocked by how many figures from Russian mythology were actually mentioned in this, and despite that it never got bogged down, they were all introduced naturally, through storytelling or Yaga’s own experiences, and I loved the deep dive we got. I learnt so many new stories and figures that I had never heard of before, and got a different look at some old favourites… I’m looking at you Morozko. She weaves in themes of feminism, religion as well as the battle between light and dark, but I think what really hits about this story is that some of the events actually happened. She shows how Ivan’s decent into madness turned him against his people, the development of the Oprichnina, them wandering the land and murdering those the Tsar thought against him. It was a truly terrible set of events, and the authors choice to set her book at this time added a whole new depth and reality to an otherwise fanciful story.
Gilmore’s writing style is lyrical and prosaic, but there were also elements of modern language in there that threw me a little at times. Despite that, she has an ability to keep you glued to the pages, whether you are reading an epic fight scene, or simply Yaga off searching for new herbs. The story wasn’t filled with twists and turns, through there are certainly a few emotional hits in there that I didn’t see coming, but there’s an underlying intensity to the story that bleeds through every page, something that his helped by the historical setting and time period chosen. There was a romance arc that popped up mid way through the story and I adored it. It’s not overly steamy, nor does it overtake the story, rather it is used to help Yaga understand that her mortal side, loving the mortals that she finds herself with is not a weakness, but rather a strength. It was sweet, slow and had just the right amount of steam and I was wishing the whole way through for them to get their HEA.
I truly adored this story. I think I’ve found my new jam and it’s feminist re-imaginings of women from history/folklore/mythology. She does a fantastic job of showing the fragility of men, and what it leads them to do to women. If you love your fantasies filled with folklore, history, just the right amount of romance and a truly brilliant female lead then you need to add this one to your TBR’s.