Catherynne M. Valente – Deathless

A handsome young man arrives in St Petersburg at the house of Marya Morevna. He is Koschei, the Tsar of Life, and he is Marya’s fate.

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.


11 thoughts on “Catherynne M. Valente – Deathless”

  1. This is actually quite a relief. I’ve just bought this book almost sight unseen, primarily because it was on of the few books crackedmoon over at Requires Only That You Hate didn’t, well, hate. It’ll work it’s way to the top of the pile in due course.

    So, even just skipping over the spoilers, it’s nice to know that I’ve not wasted my money again because of rthe random words of strangers on the internet (says the stranger on the internet).

    As you can tell, I’ve nothing of substance to contribute, but I appreciated the timing, if nothing else. Keep up the good work.

      1. Well now. I don’t know how much you encourage the back-and-forth, but having just finished this I thought I might revisit your post, spoilers and all.

        I’d agree with pretty much all of it. Especially the quality of the writing; it’s gorgeous and, yes, pitch-perfect. But the trouble was the pitch never really changed. It was all so earnest, and for me romance needs a bit of lightness to it if it’s going to work properly.

        As redhead says, it is like walking through a temple. Initially glorious and inspiring, but I’ve always found places of worship feel slightly oppressive and too aware of their own importance if I spend too long in them. You mention struggling to grasp the meaning Valente intended. I’m not sure there is one, apart from that it’s all Very Serious. There’s so very obviously a lot to unpack, and equally as obviously you’re not going to get much help doing so.

        She’s clearly a wonderful writer, and her words are truly beautiful, but I think short stories might be easier to swallow. Definitely one to be read aloud, but maybe only in short bursts.

        1. I love discussing books, so I’m so glad you came back to share your thoughts!

          I can see your point that it is all Very Serious. It is. There is some levity in the form of some of the domovoi and vintovniks and their bickering, but then again the seriousness fits the tale and the setting and it can get a bit gloomy. As to your point that perhaps she is better consumed in short doses, I can happily wander around places of worship just looking at how beautiful they are, so I think for me Valente’s temple-like prose didn’t get to be too much.

          Do you think perhaps the amount of unpacking and the minimal amount of authorial assistance doing so, is connected to it being a fairy-tale retelling? Ana over The Book Smugglers talked about a talk given by Philip Pullman connected to his new book about the Grimm fairy tales and she said (paraphrasing from memory, so might not be totally accurate) he made the point that fairy tales are all about the plot and that causes the characters to be rather archetypical and underdeveloped, but the plot points and actions rather more important so it was easy for story-tellers to a) remember and b) give it their own twist to mold it to their audience. In Deathless, Valente doesn’t just give us plot but character too and perhaps we’re meant to use the plot to unpack those characters? I hope that made some sense, I’m having a hard time putting this down cogently!

          Again, thank you so much for coming back and discussing it!

          1. The pleasure is all mine. I think I get what you’re saying about the character angle. Clearly the bit in the village towards the end makes more sense once you realise she’s talking about Trotsky, Stalin, Rasputin et al. Though it’s not exactly camouflaged at that point. HEY! EVERYBODY! THIS IS AN ALLEGORY! Seems you get too much help or not enough. I’m sure there’s a story about that…

            On a vaguely related note about passing on fairy stories there’s a theory (that I can’t remember where I read, so will shamelessly pass off as my own) that poetry and indeed song come from the need to remember stories in an oral tradition. Rhymes and lyrics stick in the head better than prose. Given the quality of the writing here that seems relevant. Somehow.

            I think, maybe, that it ties into your point about the domovoi and vintovniks. Yeah, the do provide a bit of comedy (though not exactly to my taste), but they so obviously are meant to symbolise more. There’s nothing wrong with layers of meaning, but it helps if they can be worn lightly every so often, otherwise they just become smothering. Unwrapping it all can be a lot of fun, and Valente’s put a prodigious amount of effort into tying the ribbons, but I get the distinct impression that even she isn’t sure what’s really meant to be underneath it all. Here endeth the shaky metaphor.

          2. I remember being taught something similar about poetry and song in lit class and when we were translating and discussing Homer in grammar school.

            As for picking up on the allegory, for me that was obvious when the birds arrived and turned into uniformed officers. Though I think if history class didn’t cover the Russian Revolution in some detail, then the reader would have a hard time parsing the metaphor.

  2. I think you’ve inspired me to finally read some Valente. She’s been on my radar for a while. I think I need to track down some of her stuff.

  3. You know I loved this book to death. I love that you said it’s a book designed to be read outloud, because I remember wanting to read entire passages outloud to my other half, and well, it’s not his thing so he didn’t care, and I was crushed. A Valente book is like walking through a temple, it’s beauty everywhere you look.

    1. Don’t you hate it when they do that? Mine is the same, so I just read it to the girls instead. They’re too young to understand it, but it makes me feel better ;-)

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