Dozens of books have hit shelves over the past couple of years that aim to reevaluate and reframe the stories of some of the most vicious and villainous women in fiction, giving supposed monsters from Greek mythology, witches from Western fairytales, giants from Norse legends, and even queens from Indian epic poems the voices and perspectives that have long been denied to them. (Long may this continue, is what I’m saying—because it’s honestly producing some truly excellent stories.)
Debut author Olesya Salnikova Gilmore puts a uniquely Slavic spin on this trend with The Witch and the Tsar, a fierce, historically rich reimagining of the story of Baba Yaga, a figure that’s traditionally depicted as a deformed, physically repulsive old woman who may or may not steal and eat children. A witch who allegedly dwells in a magical forest hut that stands on chicken legs, she is known for her dangerous and often duplicitous or even demonic nature. Happily, that’s not the story that Gilmore is interested in telling.
The Witch and the Tsar follows the story of Yaga Mokoshevna, a half-human, half-immortal daughter of a goddess in 1560 Russia, whose dark reputation as a witch has earned her the nickname Baba Yaga the Bony Leg. After being kicked out of yet another village, Yaga has chosen to live alone and isolated in the forest along with her telepathic wolf and a vaguely sentient house called Little Hen. (Yes, it has chicken legs. No, the story sadly never really tells us where she came from. Like so much else that is magic in this world, Little Hen simply is, and that’s that.) Occasionally someone will be desperate enough for her aid that they’ll seek out her services in secret, under cover of darkness, but for the most part, she’s left alone.
But when the Tsaritsa Anastasia Romanovna Zakharyina-Yurieva comes looking for a cure for a mysterious illness, Yaga finds herself drawn back into the mortal world in an attempt to protect her friend from the threat of an unknown assassin and Russia itself from the worst qualities of her paranoid and vindictive husband. Embroiled in a world of political intrigue that involves both greedy boyars and manipulative gods, Yaga will ultimately be forced to fight to save the homeland she loves from enemies both human and supernatural who threaten violence and war.
By specifically setting her version of this tale in sixteenth-century Russia, Gilmore is able to deftly blend historical fact alongside mythological fiction, setting the rumored evil that is Baba Yaga alongside the very real and obvious horror of the reign of Tsar Ivan the Terrible. The specific historical elements of the story, from Ivan’s rocky relationship with his eldest son and heir to the violent squad of oprichniki who committed bloody executions in the name of the crown, often feel as though they ought to be myths, that something so awful should be relegated to the same fictional realm as people who can willfully turn into animals. And yet, it is the woman of this story who is most often named as a monster. (The sobriquet “terrible” after all, can be interpreted to mean awe-inspiring as easily as it can “bad”.)
Yet, Gilmore deftly (and quite gleefully in places) subverts many of the traditional aspects of the Baba Yaga story, aging the character down and casting the reports of her hag-ish, crone-like appearance as so much bad PR from those who mistrust her motives or resent her for being different. There is, sadly, a long history of organizations like the Christian church ostracizing or otherwise “othering” those deemed dangerous or different—and what is more dangerous than an older woman on her own, in control of her own power and future?
Fair warning, the story of The Witch and the Tsar is brutally slow in places, spread over twenty years of Yaga’s life (some of which are more interesting than others). But its worldbuilding is top-notch throughout, delving into the real-life history of Russia (Ivan the Terrible really did adore his first wife Anastasia and likely never got over her death) alongside its unique folklore and mythology (Morozko the Lord of Winter, Marya Morevna, Koshey the Deathless) and weaving both together into a cohesive, compelling whole. Admittedly, I don’t know as much about Russian folklore as I probably should, but Gilmore’s rich, complex characterizations of these figures—none of them, even the most overtly villainous are strictly black or white—makes me want to learn more about them.
Women in these sorts of stories—legends, fairytales, and myths—are often relegated to secondary roles: Princesses that need rescuing or witches that need vanquishing, and neither of them is truly capable of making many choices of their own. The Witch and the Tsar is full of complicated, three-dimensional women well beyond its titular heroine, and although they are not all necessary likable or sympathetic or even what we would traditionally define as good, there’s no doubt that they are in charge of their own destinies at last.
The Witch and the Tsar is available now from Ace Books.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.