Koschei the Deathless is to Russian folklore what devils or wicked witches are to Western European culture: a menacing, evil figure, the villain of countless stories that 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 20th 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 house elves, 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.
©2011 Catherynne M. Valente (P)2011 Brilliance Audio, Inc.
In Deathless, Catherynne Valente ambitiously takes on the Russian tale of Koschei the Deathless, turning the traditional tale of the wicked bride-stealing Tsar of Life into a modern fable featuring one such bride, Marya Morevna, who learns to match Koschei in deviousness.
“The rapt pupil will be forgiven for assuming the Tsar of Death to be wicked and the Tsar of Life to be virtuous. Let the truth be told: There is no virtue anywhere. Life is sly and unscrupulous, a blackguard, wolfish, severe. In service to itself, it will commit any offense. So, too, is Death possessed of infinite strategies and a gaunt nature- but also mercy, also grace and tenderness. In his own country, Death can be kind.”
One thing that strikes me about almost every work of Russian fiction (or fiction set in Russia, as Valente is not herself Russian, but her mastery of detail might convince you otherwise): Russia just has not ever been a very nice place. It has beauty and magic and heroism, but the people are hard survivors of centuries of lethal winters and murderous invaders and cruel rulers. Softness and comfort, are rare, precious things. Deathless is a story with all of the above, but Marya Morevna's little bits of kindness and comfort are, as you might expect, hard-won and easily lost.
This book also blends traditional Russian folk tale and all the creatures that go with it (yes, Baba Yaga, of course, and also firebirds and house-elves and russalkas and Father Winter) with modern history, or 20th century history in this case. Marya Morevna begins the story as a fifteen-year-old girl who proudly wears the red scarf of Lenin's Young Pioneers, a shy girl who reads too much Pushkin and can also see birds turn into men. Each of her sisters is courted and taken away by a suitor who, unbeknownst to anyone but Marya, is a bird.
The blending of mythology with Soviet history is not a contradiction; much of the book proceeds in understandable but not always linear and never very rational fashion. Magic and fairy tale logic will not bend for prosaic reality, not even in the USSR. But that doesn't mean magic and fairy tales are unaffected by the USSR. Marya's next encounter with it is the discovery of the Domovoi, or house-elves, living in the house her family now has to share with eleven other families. Since all the families moved in, so did their Domovoi, and the little creatures have formed a Committee and become loyal members of the Party. As they tell Marya, they can cause much more mischief by writing letters than by breaking crockery.
I think the Stalinist house-elves were my favorite part of the book.
Eventually, Koschei the Deathless comes for Marya, marries her, and as she's being swept off her feet, she gets some hard lessons from Koschei's sister, Baba Yaga. Like most fairy tale wives who marry evil immortal sorcerers, Marya's story isn't supposed to have a happy ending. But Marya decides she's not going to be just another Yelena warehoused and entombed.
“Husbands lie, Masha. I should know; I've eaten my share. That's lesson one. Lesson number two: among the topics about which a husband is most likely to lie are money, drink, black eyes, political affiliation, and women who squatted on his lap before and after your sweet self.”
Catherynne Valente is always working with fairy tales, one way or the other, and you might think of her as the modern era's Brothers Grimm, retelling much older stories beautifully and imaginatively but without flensing off the horror and the grime. Valente plays all the traditional chords, like skillful use of the Rule of Three exactly when appropriate. Her gift is also with words: her books are endless collections of quotable quotes, profound paragraphs, elegant sentences crafted just so. You wish every fantasy author could fill her prose with such pretty words that regardless of the story, you always know someone will say something on the next page that you want to cut out and remember.
And yet... not quite 5 stars. Sigh. Why not? Because as much as I love and admire Catherynne Valente's writing, she's like an undisciplined genius, going off wherever the story takes her, filling it with whatever words and images strike her fancy. There is a plot of sorts to this book, but it's the plot of a fairy tale, and so it meanders, it breaks logic, it ends vaguely. Maybe it's churlish of me to want a novelistic structure in a modern fairy tale, but sometimes reading Valente is like stuffing yourself with fudge. The box is there, full of the stuff, and you can't stop helping yourself, but you know you're really eating too much and this is too much rich gooey sweetness for one sitting. I've had this reaction to most of her adult books; oddly enough, it's her MG Fairyland books, where perhaps her perfect command of heart and soul and sentences and imperfect command of narrative are ideally suited, that have me rapturously in love with her writing. I really wanted Deathless to be an adult Girl Who...Fairyland book, and it.... wasn't... quite. But I can easily see this being a 5-star book for less curmudgeonly, nitpicky, and critical readers than myself, and it did nothing to diminish my appreciation for Catherynne Valente as a writer.
This is one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful and sad pieces of writing that I have ever read, and I hope everyone else loves it as much as I did.
The character of Baba Yaga was with out a doubt my favorite character in this book. She is crass and powerful and wise and sarcastic. Everything that you would expect from an immortal sorceress that has lept from the pages of Russian myth.
Devourer of all books fantasy
I have been wanting to read this novel by Valente for sometime. She is one of my favorite authors; her writing style is so beautiful that it is like a work of high art. This book was as fantastic as her other books and I really enjoyed it.
I listened to this book on audiobook and it was beautifully done. The narrator did all the different accents and characters incredibly well. It was really a magical listen.
Marya Morevna is a young girl struggling through the troubles that visited Leningrad in the early to mid 1900’s. She watches sister after sister marry young men who were birds in trees before they dropped to the ground. Marya mourns that fact that she has no magic in her life and wonders whens a bird will turn into a young man for her. Then she gets her wish when Koschei the Deathless visits her front door and commands her obedience, kidnapping her as his wife. What follows is a tale of folklore and war; of Russia versus Germany and of Life versus Death.
This book is absolutely beautiful. Valente always writes scenes and descriptions that feel like they could jump off of the pages and come to life. The descriptions are lush and beautiful and dark and delicious.
I don’t know a lot about Russian mythology, but I know a lot more about reading this book. I also know a lot more about the horror of what the denizens of Leningrad went through especially during the Leningrad Blockade of the early 1940’s.
Marya is one of the most tragic and heroic heroines I have ever read about. She goes through so many transformations in this story. She is the young girl trying to see magic in a bleak world, a young maiden waiting for her groom, a seasoned wife supporting her husband’s war, an adultress, an old woman. She is the Queen of Life and the victim of death. Really she is amazing.
Koshay is also fascinating. In the beginning he is such an overwhelming character to Marya, until she gets to understand him better. He is cruel and he is the Tsar of Life, yet he is restricted by his own mythology and his own Deathless status.
As with many of Valente’s book some of the ideas are ambiguous and time is fluid. The book is quite the journey and I can say by the end I felt I had traveled years with Marya and suffered with her.
The biggest downside of this book is all of the Russian terms and names. They are beautiful but very hard to follow for a non-Russian speaker. Part of this might have been the fact that I listened to this book instead of read it, but I had a lot of trouble keeping some of the names straight in the beginning of the book. This might have been easier if I had seen the words instead of heard them.
Overall an absolutely stunning read and highly recommended. There is so much in here about life and death and about war and love. Just so much food for thought. Not to mention it is an absolutely beautifully written story. I also enjoyed learning about all of the history behind the Leningrad Blockade, it was so sad and I glad that it’s story is told here. Highly recommended to everyone and especially to Valente fans.
I know this novel was intended to play on traditional folk tales, but it really did not translate to a full length book. Folk tales rely on repetition (series of 3s) and one-dimensional characters (defined by one exaggerated characteristic). That works in short tales. But in a long tale, centered on a theme of suffering and toying with conflicting relationships, it drags the story down. I found myself irritated with the main character's melancholia because I simply did not care about her. I really wanted to like this book, and stuck with it to the end mainly due to the beautiful prose, but it never delivered.
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