Hey Audible, don't raise prices and I promise to buy lots more books.
I've mentioned in these reviews that I think that a narrator, especially one who is also an actor, can make a good book seem better; a bad narrator can sometimes tarnish the appeal of a book that is well-written. But, when a great performer reads an incredibly well-written book, the synergy can bring the result to a whole new dimension of achievement. I think that it is this latter case that best describes Deathless.
Firstly, my Audible version of the book thankfully avoids the very annoying repetitions of “he said,” “she said…” within the narrative. Instead, the characters are acted out by the brilliant Kim de Blecourt. She has a voice for each character, sometimes subtle in nature but always unmistakably characteristic and consistent from the beginning to the end of the story. Performing a story rather than just reading it is a difficult task to pull off well as I can only surmise given how often I have listened to poorly narrated let alone unadroitly performed novels on Audible. And perhaps because of Ms. de Blecourt, I loved every one of the characters in this story: the heroine, the hero and even the villains who I came to never think of as true villains (see the blurring of dichotomies below.) The crones, elves and goblins, et al were beautifully drawn and all easily visualized from the words of the author and voice of the narrator. The sweetness and compassion that comes through in the voice of the narrator seem totally in keeping with the themes, tone and thrust of the story.
Anna Akhmatova is the translator of Deathless. I have read criticisms elsewhere of translators who were unable to accurately carry across in translation either the meaning or beauty of the original language. I’m thinking of Solaris in its translation from Polish to English. While I cannot speak to the accuracy or translational skill of Ms. Akhmatova, what came across for me was prose of extraordinary beauty. And, given what at first blush can only be described as a book fraught with rather terrible themes, the projection of any kind of beauty in the midst of all that darkness and terror is only the first of its many dichotomies. And it is just these dichotomies that I found to be one of the most interesting aspects of the book.
There are themes of extreme opposites that are clouded dichotomies within the story. For example, there is a war between two brothers, two realms, life and death but even between these, the author blurs the line. The only difference between fact and fiction is only that which the reader allows oneself to suspend disbelief [sic] in. This is a story about power: power taken and power freely given. Incidentally, the theme of dominance and submission is explored throughout the book and might be a bit too extreme for some readers. Yet here too, the subject of sadomasochism is handled by the author with such grace, finesse and aplomb, that this reader found nothing repugnant or distasteful; another blurring of what might be considered by some to be clearly right or wrong.
Valente’s lyricism combines eastern European folklore with early to middle 20th century Soviet history. The story itself speaks of that interesting amalgam of facts and fairytales. That particular time and place served not only as a poignant backdrop but was, I believe, a metaphor for enriching a much deeper story often as cold, bleak and bitter as its exterior. While listening to the book, I often had visions of an elder, Russian grandmother with a twinkle in her eye reading tales to her grandchildren at night next to a crackling fire. Though be warned, Deathless is not a book for the very young… maybe not even for the sorta’ young. It does contain some rather mature content.
As in any good fairytale, there are lessons that are taught even if not always learned by the characters. I found that most of the lessons were not taught by the protagonists but usually by the lesser characters in the story: the spirits, demons and other magical creatures portrayed in supporting roles. Here too the dichotomies come full circle with the tutors coming to learn as much as they taught which often turned out to be the opposite of what they originally taught/thought to be true. Bad often morphed into good and good into bad; the dominant became the submissive and submissive dominant; young became old became young again.
And speaking of love, what is also amazing and just occurred to me, having written about all the dichotomies within the pages, one missing dichotomy is that of love and hate, or even love and fear if that’s your preference. One of my favorite reviewers, who is also Russian, says in her review, “For me, this was, above anything, the story of war and loss.” I can see how one might get that from Deathless. While there was war, suffering and sadness for sure, I only took away its theme of love and the beauty of its prose from between the covers. I saw suffering but found no hate! Amazing. We could blame the Bolsheviks early and Nazis later in the story for so much suffering but those were among the facts and more tangential to everything else going on in the story. My focus must have been more within the fantasy where there were few if any real villains, no bad guys (or gals.) Sure, there was the wife, if you can call her that, who ate their husbands but it sounded like they deserved it. She was great fun and one of my favorite characters.
Whatever your focus, this is a driveway book: one that you arrive home to while listening and find yourself unable to get out of the car; you sit and continue listening because you cannot stand to interrupt the story. I read the book in two days and it is one I probably would not have chosen to read or listened to in the first place. While I am a sucker for a good love story, it has to be a really good one (e.g. Romeo and Juliet.) This book was more than good; it was great.
Having just been written within the last couple of years, we can probably not call Deathless a classic. For this reader, however, it is only a matter of time.
Brandon Sanderson’s Warbreaker is a delightful book that is totally analyzed by the author himself at this fork in his website. In fact, you can find the entire book here free in pdf form under a Creative Commons License. He talks about why he would do such a seemingly crazy thing and it all makes perfect sense. So THERE RIAA. I bought the book anyway and not only to continue support of Sanderson’s work but I also wanted the audiobook format. And I’m not sorry. BTW, for you authors or students of the writing process out there, the site also contains all of the original drafts/iterations of the work complete with annotations so that you can see the complete thought process this master wordsmith uses in the crafting of his art.
Reading Warbreaker reminded me of the author’s Elantris and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Yes, they’re all about gods. I think that many of us share a common view about what a god would be like. I doubt if any of us has or had a notion anything like that of these two authors. One of the characters in Warbreaker is a very reluctant god and he was probably my favorite. Maybe because if such exists, it’s how I picture her. We also have here the character Siri. Yes, I finally get to learn more about that character who keeps talking to me on my iPhone.
There’s a lot to like here in the way of magic and imagination. The magic is not like anything we’ve seen before or since from Sanderson. For those of you who insist on a bunch of knock down drag out fighting and car (chariot) races it’s not really here. This one’s more about the character, the magic, politics, relationships and just plain fun. A lot of intrigue, deep thought and mysticism? Probably not. There’s really not even much religion in the book given it’s about gods. But it’s a fun and easy read. If you like Brandon Sanderson, and I love him, you won’t be disappointed.
About the narrator, James Yaegashi, I can only say: take the good with the less than perfect reading. Audible has some of the most outstanding performers of classic literature anywhere on the planet. I am often left in awe at how the written word can be be so mightily enhanced by the right narrator of those words and the performance of its characters. Warbreaker is not a work of great, classic literature. It’s just a fun book adequately narrated by a reader who I am convinced will improve over time.
This is probably the most enjoyable book I have read/listened to all year and the year is 2/3 complete. For those among us who gravitate to fantasy, this is certainly that. For those looking for something quite unique this is that also. For those among the hopeless romantics, you have come home. I loved everything about this book: the story, its depth and its ending. And narrated by George Guidall; what more could one ask for?
The nature of my world these days has caused me to cut back on the number of reviews that I am able to write. But I just have to share what I find to be the truly wonderful books I come across and this is one of them.