The Witch and the Tsar by Olesya Salnikova Gilmore

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.

Thank you to Penguin Random House for giving me a free Advanced Reader’s Copy in exchange for an honest review and allowing me to participate in this blog tour. Unfortunately this book did not land with me, but it definitely is a beautifully written book. I would be interested in coming back to it at some point and reading it again for these reasons. Gilmore does a fantastic job at weaving such a mystical world where witches and old gods and goddess and other deities are fighting for balance. Yaga was such a fun character and the witch aesthetic was spot on. I absolutely loved her familiars who helped her along the way, as well as her house (named Little Hen!) who moved to wherever Yaga was. Everything surrounding Yaga felt like living, breathing beings designed to help her on her journey and I loved every scene they were in. I also enjoyed the “interlude” chapters where we got some small snippets of what was happening in the mystical realm. Those were very fun and gave the reader a “break” from the heavy scenes happening with Yaga in a 16th century war-stricken, tyrant-lead Russia.

Where this book fell short for me was that I know next to nothing about Russian and Slavic folklore, so I felt quite lost during most of the story, especially where the characters were concerned. Deities and other human characters were introduced as if I should already know who they are and their background and unfortunately it was hard to build connections to them. If you know quite a bit about Russian folklore and the Baba Yaga legends then I think you would very much appreciate this story and I encourage you to give it a try.

Information about the author: Olesya Salnikova Gilmore was born in Moscow, Russia, raised in the U.S., and graduated from Pepperdine University with a BA in English/political science, and from Northwestern School of Law with a JD. She practiced litigation at a large law firm for several years before pursuing her dream of becoming an author. She is most happy writing historical fiction and fantasy inspired by Eastern European folklore. She lives in a wooded, lakeside suburb of Chicago with her husband and daughter. The Witch and the Tsar is her debut novel. Learn more online at www.olesyagilmore.com.

-Review by Kelly

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