Dozens of books have hit the shelves in the last two years that aim to reassess and reframe the stories of some of the most vicious and evil women in fiction, giving purported monsters from Greek mythology, witches from Western fairy tales , giants of Norse legends, and even queens of Indian epics the voices and perspectives that have long been denied them. (Let this go on for a long time, is what I’m saying, because it’s honestly turning out some really great stories.)
Newcomer author Olesya Salnikova Gilmore puts a unique Slavic spin on this trend with The Witch and the Tsar, a fierce and historically rich reimagining of the story of Baba Yaga, a figure traditionally depicted as a deformed and physically repulsive old woman who may or may not steal and eat children. A witch who supposedly inhabits a magical cabin in the woods that stands on chicken legs, she is known for her dangerous and often deceitful or even demonic nature. Happily, that is No 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 1560s Russia, whose dark reputation as a witch has earned her the nickname Baba Yaga the Bony Leg. After being kicked out of another town, Yaga has chosen to live alone and secluded in the woods along with her telepathic wolf and a vaguely sentient house called Little Hen. (Yes, she has chicken feet. No, history sadly never really tells us where she came from. Like so many other things that are magical in this world, Little Hen just it isand that’s all.) Occasionally, someone will be so desperate for her help that they will seek her services in secret, under cover of darkness, but for the most part, she is left alone.
But when the Tsaritsa Anastasia Romanovna Zakharyina-Yurieva comes in search of a cure for a mysterious illness, Yaga finds herself drawn back to the mortal world in an attempt to protect her friend from the threat of an unknown assassin and Russia itself. of the worst qualities of humanity. her husband paranoid and vindictive of her. Engulfed in a world of political intrigue involving 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 his version of this story in 16th-century Russia, Gilmore is able to deftly blend historical fact with mythological fiction, placing 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 like myth, that something so horrible should be relegated to the same fictional realm as people who can voluntarily turn into animals. And yet, it is the woman in this story who is most often named as a monster. (After all, the moniker “terrible” can be interpreted to mean awesome just as easily as “bad.”)
However, Gilmore cleverly (and quite gleefully in places) subverts many of the traditional aspects of the Baba Yaga story, aging the character and casting reports of her hag-like appearance as bad PR from those who distrust her. of her reasons for her or resent her for being different. There is, sadly, a long history of organizations like the Christian church ostracizing or otherwise “othering” those who are considered dangerous or different, and what is more dangerous than an older woman alone, in control of her life? his own power and future?
Fair warning, the story of The Witch and the Tsar it’s brutally slow in places, spread over twenty years of Yaga’s life (some of which are more interesting than others). But his world-building is top-notch throughout, delving into Russia’s real-life history (Ivan the Terrible really adored his first wife Anastasia and probably never got over her death) along with its unique folklore and mythology (Morozko the Lord of Winter, Marya Morevna, Koshey the Deathless) and weaving the two together into a cohesive and compelling whole. Admittedly, I don’t know as much about Russian folklore as I probably should, but Gilmore’s rich and complex characterizations of these figures (none of them, even the most overtly evil ones, are strictly black or white) make me want to learn more about them. .
Women in these kinds of stories (legends, fairy tales, and myths) are often relegated to supporting roles: princesses who need to be rescued or witches who need to be vanquished, and neither of them are really capable of making many decisions on their own. . The Witch and the Tsar is full of complicated, three-dimensional women far beyond its titular heroine, and while not all of them are necessarily likeable or likeable or even what we’d traditionally define as good, there’s no question that they’re ultimately in charge of their own destinies.
The Witch and the Tsar is now available at Ace Books.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the book editor for Paste magazine, but she loves learning about all kinds of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
Source : www.pastemagazine.com