Koschei leads Marya to his kingdom, where she becomes a warrior in his tireless battle against his own brother, the Tsar of Death.
Years pass. Battle-hardened, scarred by love, and longing for respite, Marya returns to St Petersburg – only to discover a place as pitiful as the land she has just fled: a starveling city, haunted by death.
Earlier this year, I cut my Valente-teeth novel-wise on The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. I fell completely in love with her writing and in the months since I’ve listened to two of her short stories on EscapePod and PodCastle, which were every bit as good and rich as The Girl Who… was. As I’m also quite fond of fairytale retellings, Deathless seemed a story I couldn’t help but love. And seeming was truth, as Deathless was a stunning tale, which will stay with me for a while.
There will be mentions of elements of the story that might be considered spoilers for those unfamiliar with the Koschei mythos, so if you do not want to be spoiled please either skip ahead to the last paragraph of this review or click away!
The story is a wonderful retelling of The Death of Koschei the Deathless set in Russia in the first half of the twentieth century. It is a gorgeous mix of myth and history, mixing in several other Russian folk tales and all the political upheaval and cultural change Russia was embroiled in during the first fifty years of the twentieth century. I loved the metaphor of the colours of the birds and the uniforms they change into when they come for Marya’s sisters, each mirroring the next step in Russia’s revolution, it is an elegant way of alluding to the rapid political changes without giving a history lecture, but for those familiar with it, it’s perfectly clear what is happening. Valente retains many traditional fairytale elements – the repetition of certain phrases and actions, things coming in threes, and the quest as a proof of worthiness – but at the same time subverts them by having Marya being the one with agency; she is making the choices, she chooses to go with Ivan, she chooses to go with Koschei, she chooses to accept Baba Yaga’s challenges. She chooses to overpower Koschei in the same way he dominated her and reclaim her will. She goes from being a girl waiting for the magic to come for her to a woman creating her own magic.
The characters are wonderful, both those located in Buyan and later in Leningrad. Valente fills her world with many creatures springing from Russian folklore: leshy, vintovniks, domovoi, vila, russalki, magical horses, Baba Yaga and numerous other types of unnamed chyerti. There is a clear break in characters though, there are those of Marya’s innocence if you will, Zemlehyed, Naganya, and Lebedeva, who are her friends and who help her prove herself worthy of Koschei, and there are those who come after, Kseniya, Sofiya, and Zvonek. I especially loved Kseniya and Sofiya, as I recognised them from a short story Valente originally published in Clarkesworld, and which I heard on PodCastle, called Urchins, while Swimming. And before and after there are Koschei and Ivan, dark and light, Marya’s day husband and her night husband. They’re as different as can be, but at the same time frighteningly similar. Marya loves both of them for different reasons and they are both crucial to her development. And always, always there’s Marya. She’s the heart of the tale and the star. I absolutely loved her. Her development is fantastic and while she isn’t always very likeable, she’s never boring.
As I’ve come to expect from Valente, Deathless is written in gorgeous prose. From the fairytale repetitions, to the stately cadence of the sentences, to the wistfulness of its ending, the writing is pitch-perfect. There is so much layering to the narrative, that you could reread this book several times and find new meaning in it every time. There are themes of love, of power, of politics, all boiling down to who rules? Who rules in life, in death, in love, and in power. In Deathless Marya explores both sides of the equation and discovers those you rule, rule you in turn. The only problem for me was the ending, which escaped me. Even after reading it several times, I’m still not sure whether my interpretation of its meaning is the one Valente meant me to make. Then again, that might have been just her intention.
Deathless is a book made for reading aloud, for reading to someone. It is a book made for rereading and finding more to love each time. Valente is a fantastic storyteller who never fails to captivate the imagination and to capture the heart. Deathless has cemented her as a must-read author for me and the book is a shoe-in for my top favourite reads this year. If you’ve never read any work by Catherynne M. Valente, do yourself a favour and run and get this book. If you have read Valente’s work you’ll hardly need convincing by me to go and read this gorgeous story.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.