The Witch and the Tsar by Olesya Salnikova Gilmore
09/20/2022 by Ace
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.
Olesya Salnikova Gilmore weaves a rich tapestry of mythology and Russian history, reclaiming and reinventing the infamous Baba Yaga, and bringing to life a vibrant and tumultuous Russia, where old gods and new tyrants vie for power. This fierce and compelling novel draws from the timeless lore to create a heroine for the modern day, fighting to save her country and those she loves from oppression while also finding her true purpose as a goddess, a witch, and a woman.
Leaving the guard to keep watch outside, I ushered the tsaritsa into the darkened innards of
my hut. Little Hen was used to clients coming and going and usually behaved herself
enough by staying low to the ground so as not to frighten anyone. I hastily lit a few stubby
beeswax candles. The scent of burning honey filled the air as I turned back to my royal
visitor, swallowing hard.
Her tears had dried, her dull brown eyes taking on a chillingly distant look. Where were the
flecks of gold, the quick wit, the uncharacteristic warmth of someone of her social standing?
Her vibrancy was gone. Her skirts rustled like dried-up leaves as she sank onto the stool I
offered her with the tired, defeated air of one who wishes never to rise again.
A few wandering chickens clucked at my feet. Noch hooted from a shadowy corner. The
tsaritsa probably found this-me-uncivilized, disgustingly rustic, even.
But she only said, “It has been months. The doctors do not know what it is. I do.” She
struggled out of her cloak. “I am dying.”
The bell-sleeved, flower-patterned letnik gown dragged her down as if bloated with
seawater. A little shiver darted up my spine, almost prompting me to ask the tsaritsa how
many dresses she wore. For wealthy women, it was customarily a minimum of three. But it
was clear it was not the dresses plaguing her.
There was sweat on her brow, a redness at her mouth and eyes, though her skin was
missing the telltale blotches and swellings of pestilence. An internal imbalance was possible,
but those were the hardest to heal. An illness of the mind or spirit? Stooping under the dry
herbs and flowers hanging from the slanted ceiling, I crossed the room to an iron cauldron
bubbling over a fire that never went out. Iron possessed mystical and protective powers.
“It has been some time since you visited me,” I said slowly, brushing aside a purple
lavender blossom. “Thirteen years?”
“With the wedding, I . . .”
“I have heard weddings eat into time like moths. What about after? I tended to your family
for years. To be forgotten so quickly by you and your mother was quite the revelation.” I
bent over the cauldron and ladled out hot water into a bowl fashioned from bone. Steam
billowed into my face as I flushed with resentment. Or maybe disappointment.
How would the great Earth Goddess Mokosh feel about such neglect? I thought about my
beloved mother, the protector of women-of their work and destiny, the birth of their
children. I glanced up at her symbol, the wooden horse’s head hanging above the cauldron.
We provide succor regardless of wounded pride, she had once told me. Pride is an illusion
and the path to conceit. Gods may be guilty of it, Yaga, but not you.
But our gods, the ancient ones born of the Universe, had been worshipped then. While
Mokosh had not spoken of it, tales say she helped to create the Earth with Perun, the
Supreme God and Lord of the Heavens, and many other gods besides. Perun forged the sky
with his thunderbolts; Mokosh gave birth to the land. Her spindle spun the cloth of
humanity, thread by thread, woman by woman, life to death, generation after generation.
She was Moist Earth, mother of all living things and my actual mother.
Eventually, mortals began to worship the Christian god. While some believed in the old gods
as well as him, I doubted the tsaritsa was of their number, living as she did in the center of
the Orthodox Christian faith in Russia. Yet before her ascent to the court, she had gladly
partaken of what infuriatingly limited talents I had inherited from Mokosh.
“I made you a tsaritsa,” I said. “I provided your mother with the herbs and charms that got
the court to take notice of a dead aristocrat’s daughter. Or have you forgotten?”
Excerpted from The Witch and the Tsar by Olesya Salnikova Gilmore Copyright © 2022 by Olesya Salnikova Gilmore.
Excerpted by permission of Ace. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without
permission in writing from the publisher.
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.