The Witch and the Tsar is Olesya Salnikova Gilmore’s intriguing debut. It has been published in the US for a few months, but the UK edition was just released in December – both have their own gorgeous covers, doing the story justice. The Witch and the Tsar is historical fantasy, weaving the complex stories around Baba Yaga into the establishment of the Tsardom in Russia – the story is largely set during the reign of Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible), the first Tsar of Russia. It is a well-written and compelling story, focused on atmosphere. And that makes The Witch and the Tsar a perfect read for this time of year.
I loved seeing more of Baba Yaga – and having her be a complex and morally ambiguous character, struggling with her role in the world and society. We tend to only ever hear a very one-sided portrayal of her as the hag living in the house with chicken legs, and this Yaga is far more than that. She is a woman, a mother and a lover. She cares and she fights, she tries to help but also pushes boundaries and struggles. I also found the way the story was embedded in its historical context worked well. It wasn’t overloaded with minute detail, but rich enough to evoke a lush atmosphere, with information in all of the right places.
What I felt didn’t work quite as well was the pacing and with it, character development in its deeper nuances. As the book spans a long period of time, the story taking place over the course of decades, with Yaga being ageless before that, the individual moment is given less significance in the scheme of things. I found that that led to uneven pacing and less personal connection throughout the story. Spending more time on a limited timespan would have helped even this out and created a more coherent story. I understand that this followed Yaga throughout the course of Ivan’s reign, and chronicled their ongoing relationship and interactions – but to me, it lost narrative tension in this broad remit, and I wished it had been more concerned with a smaller scale story, but fleshed it out more.
While I enjoyed reading this a lot, and found a lot of the individual elements worked really well, as a whole, not everything worked together perfectly. Pacing and tension was at times awkward, though the story was still compelling and the atmosphere made up for a lot. There was a clear focus on Yaga and her character to the detriment of others due to the scale of the project. The Witch and the Tsar is certainly a promising debut, by a writer to watch. It’s not a perfect book, but one to go into with awareness of its flaws and one that will work well for readers who love vibes and atmosphere over pacy plot.