Monday, November 6, 2023

The Witch and the Tsar

The Witch and the Tsar
  The Witch and the Tsar
Author:  Olesya Salnikova Gilmore
Publication Information:  Ace. 2022. 432pages.
ISBN:  0593546970 / 978-0593546970

Rating:  ★★★

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "When my own landed on my shoulder, I knew heartbreak was not far behind."

Favorite Quote:  "Once war is on men's minds, it festers within, claiming them."

The myth / folktale of Baba Yaga is an old Slavic one. Baba Yaga is shown to be a fierce, sometimes deformed woman. Her home is said to be a hut on chicken legs which can travel to her or stay as needed. Typically, she is associated with wildlife and said to live in the forest wilderness. Some may seek her out for help for her supernatural abilities and the remedies she may be brew.

This retelling of the tale of Baba Yaga is not quite that. It is set in the Russian era of Ivan the Terrible. The Yaga in this book is half-goddess, old but young, and beautiful. She has the ability to travel between the worlds of the living and the dead. She does indeed live in a hut with chicken legs in the middle of the forests. She is knowledgeable, but at the same time, an emotional being scarred as a child by the loss of her mother and the manner in which society ostracized her. Because of this, she chooses to remain secluded, living with her chicken hut, her wolf, and her owl. 

Yet, those who need her manage to find her. "Whoever came ... did so when their prayers had gone unanswered, when the mortal healers had thrown up their hands. They came in the depths of their despair."

A visit from an old friend and an even older enemy brings Yaga out of her seclusion to the Tsar's court in Moscow. Mythology meets Russian history. Politics, centuries old battles, wars, deaths, betrayals, near escapes, and all other manner of intrigue embody this story. Gods and goddesses - both good and evil - bring the human intrigue to a whole other level. The conflict between the gods of mythology and the new Christian God adds another dimension to this multi-layered tale.

The story is entertaining but long. It also takes some study to follow. The book includes a glossary of names of the real and fictional characters, an explanation of Russian naming conventions, and a list of real and fictional places in the book. That glossary explains a bit of how the real and the fiction mixed. In this fictional account, though, the mythology wins out for me. Other than the general familiarity I have with the history, I do not find myself sifting through the fiction to find the actual history and then researching to learn more. Rather, the history submerges and becomes part of the mythology, and I enjoy an entertaining book about gods, goddesses, and monsters.

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