Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is the first Catherynne Valente book I've read, though I met her at a convention a couple of years ago. I'm gratified to learn that I enjoy her prose, because I would've been sad to only like her as a person. Deathless is everything I'd hoped
Deathless is both a fairy tale retelling of classic Russian folk tales, and a story of survival in St. Petersburg/Petrograd/Leningrad from post-WWI to the start of WWII. It follows Marya Merevna, who stumbles across the presence of magic in her ever-changing world. She's claimed as a wife by Koschei the Deathless and her worthiness is tested by Baba Yaga, another Russian mythical character. She fights his war against the czar of death, V, meanwhile changing to become a harder, colder person. When the fated Ivan shows up to save her from Koschei, she finds herself torn between them, but ultimately chooses to return home, just in time for WWII to starve her nearly to death.
I thought, at first, that this was about being changed for the worse by loving the wrong person, but the story is more subtle than that. Yes, Marya becomes a demon for love of Koschei, but she embraces her transformation, in the end. I couldn't put my finger on exactly what the message is, except perhaps that magic is dead in the world, and there is no winner in war. There's also some smaller messages about the immortality of stories, the danger of power dynamics in relationships, the roles of men and women, why communism was so dangerous, and changing fate.
The book integrates many aspects of Russian fairy tales into the story, though I'm not familiar enough with Russian mythical tradition to comment on how well it was used. Still, I always like to see so many aspects of folklore tapped.
Many other reviewers have comments on the lyricism of Valente's prose, and I have no quibble with them. This book reads like poetry. Even the dialogue is in harmony, while at the same time sounding like something each character would say. There's a lot of repetition, which further reinforces both the lyrical quality and the fairy tale nature of the book.
I do have a quibble, though, and that's the book's plot-driven nature. For most of the book, Marya is bobbing along, pulled by the plot. I didn't feel that she was invested in any of her choices, until the end. I suppose that fits with another theme, but it's unpalatable to me. I prefer to read stories where people make choices for a reason that makes sense to me.
I listened to Deathless on audio, which I can't recommend. The narrator has a thick Midwestern accent that threw me out of the narrative more than once, and her pronunciation and emphasis gave me a strong sense of dissonance. These words are better appreciated spoken aloud, but not by this narrator.
View all my reviews