Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente
Published: 2011, Tor
Awards Nominated: Locus Fantasy Award
“Koschei the Deathless is to Russian folklore what devils or wicked witches are to European culture: a menacing, evil figure; the villain of countless stories which have been passed on through story and text for generations. But Koschei has never before been seen through the eyes of Catherynne Valente, whose modernized and transformed take on the legend brings the action to modern times, spanning many of the great developments of Russian history in the twentieth century.
Deathless, however, is no dry, historical tome: it lights up like fire as the young Marya Morevna transforms from a clever child of the revolution, to Koschei’s beautiful bride, to his eventual undoing. Along the way there are Stalinist domoviye, magical quests, secrecy and bureaucracy, and games of lust and power. All told, Deathless is a collision of magical history and actual history, of revolution and mythology, of love and death, which will bring Russian myth back to life in a stunning new incarnation.” ~WWEnd.com
Deathless is the second novel I’ve read by Valente, and the first I’ve read of her adult-targeted novels. This was a challenging novel for me, so I’m planning on reading some translations of Aleksandr Afanasiev’s collected fairy tales to gain a little more retroactive insight. In the meantime, I will review the novel as best I can!
Even though I had only ever read her young adult fiction, Valente’s descriptive, poetic writing was instantly recognizable in Deathless. She evokes the feeling of fairy tales very strongly, most clearly in the use of some familiar structures. For instance, many things in the story happen in threes, and the three instances are sometimes described with identical phrasing. Valente’s writing can veer rapidly from humorous to profound, and there were many quotes throughout the story that were especially memorable. For instance, here is one paragraph describing ration cards during the blockade of Leningrad:
“A ration card says, This much life we have allotted you. It says, This much death we can keep from your door. But no more. It says, In Leningrad there is only so much life to go around. It says, The only thing not rationed in Leningrad is death.” p. 523
Valente’s knowledge of Russian culture, history, and folklore is apparent throughout the novel. I feel like Deathless gave me a better understanding of Russian diminutives, as well as teaching various Russian words through naming wordplay (though I did have to look up the meanings). I also learned more about many mythological creatures rarely featured in most fiction I’ve read—like leshy, domoviye, rusalki, and others—as well as learning more about early 20th century Russia. Valente does not exactly hold your hand through all of this, so I think it could be a little intimidating for those of us who are picking it up as we go.
Despite the fairy-tale style and structure, the mature content (concerning war, death, and adult relationships) makes it clear that this is a story for adults. Valente entwines Russian folklore with the events that took place in the country in the first half of the 20th century. Marya ends up involved in Koschei’s (the Tsar of Life) never-ending war with Viy (the Tsar of Death). The war between the living and the dead is balanced by historical events—the Revolution, the administrations of Lenin and Stalin, and World War 2. Marya is torn between the real and the unreal, drawn both to the fantastic country of Buyan and the increasingly deadly, constantly changing city of St. Petersburg/Petrograd/Leningrad. Through Marya’s life in both worlds, we see how the common stories of a group of people affect and are affected by the reality they experience.
At the center of the story is the romance between Marya Morevna and Koschei the Deathless. I am not entirely sure I correctly read the meaning behind the portrayal of their romance. I think it might have been that relationships change drastically over time, and that the same people can mean very different things to one another through the course of a life. Marya and Koschei’s relationship is certainly constantly changing—between monogamous and open, vanilla and BDSM, abusive and loving, faithful and unfaithful. Through all of this, Valente explored the power dynamics of love, asserting that the primary question in a romantic relationship is, “Who is to rule?” I don’t think I especially agree with that, but I enjoyed the complexity of Mary and Koschei’s ideas of love.
As you can probably tell, this was a very dense novel for me. There was so much information, so many references, and so many worthwhile ideas to explore about mythology/ideology and theory of romance. The writing was beautiful, and at times incredibly emotionally moving. However, the direction and pacing sometimes felt a little haphazard. It was sometimes hard to pick out a clear narrative arc from all the content, and the story seemed to constantly jump off in unexpected directions. I often like unusually structured stories, but I felt like I didn’t understand the relevance or importance of some of the plot turns. For instance, I’m certain that a lot of the significance of the Yaichka section went over my head, and I’m still not sure I really understood the ending. In any case, this was a remarkable novel, and one that I will probably be trying to figure out for some time to come.
My Rating: 4.5/5
Deathless is a creative novel that is notable for the stylistic, poetic flair of the prose, the entwining of myth and history, and the commentary on relationships, power, and other topics. It was a daunting novel to read, due to the knowledge it assumes in its readers and the many levels of meaning in each small part of the story. The plot sometimes seems a little directionless, and it gets progressively more difficult to understand towards the end. However, all of those challenges also combine to make it into a fascinating story. I think at least a passing familiarity with Russian language, history and folklore would be useful for appreciating the novel to the fullest. Regardless, I very much enjoyed my first foray into Valente’s adult fiction!