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New Books Network Interview: Olesya Salnikova Gilmore

Before I introduce you to the subject of my latest New Books Network interview, let me set the scene.

When my owl landed on my shoulder, I knew heartbreak was not far behind.

It was not that twilight tasted different, though on my tongue, the humid spring air had the bitterness of snowfall. It was that, even this deep in the Russian forest, dusk bled into the light with infuriating leisure. The clouds had smothered the last of the sun’s rays in scarlet. Yet day clung on, delaying what mortals intended to find their way to my izbushka.

The log hut stood on chicken legs, not swaying or spinning or even pacing, as unnaturally still as me. I usually fidgeted with impatience, eager for my first client to appear, for my work to begin. Now, unease wrapped around my throat, silent as a viper.

Against a dark blue background a young woman in a cloak stands amid snow and pine trees while above her an owl flies past a silhouette of St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow, with stars and a moon in the background.

So begins Olesya Salnikova Gilmore’s The Witch and the Tsar, which came out last year but was released in paperback just last Tuesday. Devotees of Russian fairy tales will recognize from the hut on chicken feet that the person speaking must be Baba Yaga, but this is not the Baba Yaga we all know and fear (or perhaps love, with the same thrill that draws people to horror movies). In my latest New Books Network interview, Olesya Salnikova Gilmore explains why she decided to revisit the wicked witch of her childhood and turn her in another direction. Read on—and especially listen to our conversation—to find out more.

The rest of this post comes from the New Books Network.

Any novel set in Russia during the reign of Ivan the Terrible (1533–1584) is an instant draw for me; that is, after all, the setting for most of my own fiction. Throw in Baba Yaga, the wicked witch of Russian folklore, and give her a makeover, and I am hooked.

A girl in Russian peasant dress holds up a lighted skull. She is in a birch forest, in front of a cabin ringed by more glowing skulls, the chicken-footed hut of the witch Baba Yaga

Throw out the warts and the cackle, the flying mortar and pestle, the human skulls lighted from within, and even the appellation “Baba” (“granny,” but also “hag” or “crone”). These attributes, according to Gilmore, are part of a vicious plot to discredit her heroine, Yaga—the half-mortal, extremely long-lived daughter of the Earth goddess Mokosh. Born in the tenth century, before the introduction of Christianity cast the old Slavic deities into the shade, Yaga has become a noted healer who doesn’t appear a day over thirty in 1560, when the story begins. Over the centuries, she has acquired a frenemy, Koshei (Koshchei) the Deathless, who for reasons that become clear during the novel has chosen to break his prior deal with Yaga and interfere once more in human affairs, pushing Tsar Ivan the Terrible along his path of suspicion and terror. The first victim is Tsaritsa Anastasia, a friend of Yaga’s before Anastasia’s selection as Ivan’s first royal bride. It’s that connection that draws Yaga into the fight. But the forces opposing her are immortal as well as mortal, complicating her efforts.

It’s all very well done, although the impact of Ivan’s atrocities and of Koshei’s insistence on violence as necessary to the survival of Russia is only heightened by Putin’s ongoing aggression against Ukraine, which the author could not have anticipated when her book was accepted for publication. The history is mostly sound (allowing for the supernatural element) and the Russian correct, as one would expect of a native speaker. And there is the fun, for those in the know, of watching the author play with familiar (Little Hen, the hut on chicken feet) and new (Yaga’s immortal helpers, the wolf Dyen and the owl Noch, named for Day and Night, respectively) tropes from this set of ancient myths. If you like fantastical takes on history or reexaminations of literary villainesses, this novel is for you.

Image: Vasilissa the Beautiful Escaping Baba Yaga’s Hut, by the 19th-century book illustrator Ivan Bilibin, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.


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