Continue below to read my review of the book! Blog tour brought to you by BERKLEY/PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE and OLESYA SALNIKOVA GILMORE!
The Witch and the Tsar
Olesya Salnikova Gilmore
Publisher: Ace (Berkley / Penguin Random House)
Pub Date: Sept. 20th, 2022
Genres: Historical Fantasy, Magical Realism
In this stunning historical fantasy debut, an isolated witch will risk all that she has to save her country and her people from dangerous gods and the twisted hearts of men.
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.
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When I first came across The Witch and the Tsar in the releases for this year, I had a feeling it was going to be something special and Gilmore does not disappoint.
It is at it's core, a historical fiction fantasy based around some 'what-if' scenarios with the Romanov family, following the path of the folklore legend, Baba Yaga. The immortal witch is nothing like the hideous descriptions she's known as and Anastasia, now all grown up with a family of her own, is everything the hearts of those who deify her believe she could have become.
Yaga is a strong, genuinely independent female protagonist, who manages to wield power with empathy and kindness and still come across as someone who can hold their own in most situations. She's indelibly human, despite being a demi-goddess.. capable of mistakes that are all too relatable, but she learns and adapts, persevering throughout them.
Gilmore paints a stunning picture of both the beauty and brutality of sixteenth century Russia. From the architecture of old Moscow to the trenches of what is ultimately civil war, her prose is eloquent, yet not overly flowery. There's a coolness to the Eastern European storytelling style that I just love, which tends more toward the discussion of feelings than the dramatic expression of them. There are moments of course, where both occur, but I find the former to make the latter far more impactful than in a story where the main character is constantly on an emotional rollercoaster.
The magic system is creative and diverse. That which seems good or evil might simply be leveraged in some way, as the development of even many of the briefest meetings we get with characters is rich with substance and vitality.
I absolutely loved this book. If you like complex layered storytelling, characters that aren't always what they seem, dark fantasy, and Slavic themes.. give this one a try. You'll be glad you did.
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 OlesyaGilmore.com. (Linked in author photo.)