The Witch and the Tsar by Olesya Salnikova Gilmore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Let me first say that I think this was a pretty good novel, a sprawling, adventuresome novel full of death and the death realms, gods, magic, and interesting Russian folktale retellings. As pure fiction on this specific topic of Baba Yaga and the Deathless and Ivan the Terrible, I like this one better than some -- not as much as others -- while still thinking it was a pretty fun ride.
But here's where I start to have a bit of an issue: Baba Yaga is being reimagined as an old but youthful seeming, misunderstood feminist icon trying to learn how to get along in a life that is complicated and strange, butting heads with gods and the Deathless and the earthly powers that be, let alone the encroaching Christianity versus the old gods.
I can easily appreciate the attempt while feeling a little queasy about the implication. This is on the same level as humanizing Disney Villains and trying to make them misunderstood icons twisted through a man's ugly eye. And maybe that does happen. I'm not saying it doesn't. But it also ignores the fact that all people can be crazily good or evil and no amount of wringing of hands or revisionary writing can whitewash it.
What we got was a happy ending with a flawed, but ultimately good feminist icon. If I didn't know anything about Baba Yaga at all, I'd be pointing at this and going, "See? See? Men bad!" while ignoring the necessity for the big bad, the big wishgranter, the complicated, bigger-than-life IDEA of Baba Yaga and what she meant to countless myth-lovers.
There's a reason she endured the way she was. It wasn't because Wise Women who were burned as Witches were all really good people underneath. And so, I miss the full range and scope of what is usually a fascinating character.
As a novel that only vaguely resembles the original legends, I'm quite certain I enjoyed it, but it was still weak Vodka.
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