Review: Deathless by Catherynne M.Valente

‘That’s how you get deathless, volchitsa. Walk the same tale over and over, until you wear a groove in the world, until even if you vanished, the tale would keep turning, keep playing, like a phonograph, and you’d have to get up again, even with a bullet through your eye, to play your part and say your lines.’

So if it’s something I love, is a weird, polarising book. All the better if it’s something of a retelling or incorporates elements of folklore and stories past. I generally go out of my way to find them and not until I moved earlier this year did I realise that Deathless was one of those books. And that it had been on my shelf for the last four years. Still, I had no idea what I was letting myself in for.

A glorious retelling of the Russian folktale Marya Morevna and Koschei the Deathless, set in a mysterious version of St. Petersburg during the first half of the 20th century. 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. For years she follows him in love and in war, and bears the scars. But eventually Marya returns to her birthplace – only to discover a starveling city, haunted by death. Deathless is a fierce story of life and death, love and power, old memories, deep myth and dark magic, set against the history of Russia in the twentieth century. It is, quite simply, unforgettable

This is a book that is both challenging and haunting in equal measure. When I originally got it, I distinctly remember seeing reviews of the story being a cross between ‘this is stunning!’ or ‘what the hell is this? I have no idea what’s happening here’. I’m quite glad to report that I fell somewhere in the middle of both of those.

Marya, our protagonist, already is a girl with a different path laid out for her. She not only can see the ‘naked world’ as she calls it, she is also the youngest daughter of 4 and happens to be living in Russia as many radical changes are happening in her country. She is in this unique position of being able to see things others can’t, the birds that her sisters husbands are for example before they land on the doorstep, as well as a peculiar ignorance to what might be about to befall her. I liked Marya a lot and I honestly liked how she had enough cruelty and love in her to match her Koschei.

The dynamic and the romance between both is equally toxic and passionate as all fairy tale romances are on examination. The cruelty they bestow on one another matched by their testaments of love, energetic sex and declarations of loyalty. I definitely felt very cautious about Koschei and Marya as a couple at the start of the book. There is definitely an element of caution about him but by the final third I was starting to really root for him? And hoped that they would work things out? I think it’s testament to Valente’s excellent and complex writing to layer the two this way that you know they are bad for each other, but because it’s a fairy tale you want them to win in the end.

While speaking on the fairy tale aspect of the story, I need to commend the way this book is structured and told. This is definitely one of those books that not everyone is going to gel with, especially when it comes to the story and plot not being so linear. It is a gamble but I think it pays off beautifully. So even a passing familiarity of Russian and Eastern Europe folklore would have you familiar with some figures of the tale; Baba Yaga, Vasilisa, some Leshy spirits being the main ones. At one point, Marya must complete 3 tasks to have her bless her marriage to Koschei. That was very cool as well as some tasks Marya has to complete later in the story to return home and they are as brutal and whimsical as you would expect. There’s also like an acknowledgment from the characters that these stories have to play out as they do and always will. Like when Baba Yaga shows Marya a warehouse of working Yelenas. All women of the same name who have tried to keep par with Koschei before and defeat him, made to work as a punishment for their betrayal. That was a nice touch.

Just another reason I really liked this, was how these entities and beings adapt to our world and change their appearance or values to match the history of the time. This entire tale takes place against the back drop of Revolutionary Russia. These figures are all taking part in that revolution as well. Main example, when she meets her, Marya is ordered to call Baba Yaga by Chairman Yaga, not being worthy to call her ‘comrade’. It’s this idea that they’ve been around so long that they will take part in things to try and have a lasting impact. I love as well when there’s a moment where incest between gods is mentioned and it’s pretty much confirmed that they are around so long that they have tried everything at this point. But that element of gods being around with people as history is made and they are part of it? I love that and haven’t seen it done so well since American Gods.

I would recommend this book with caution to people but if you like American Gods, a more in depth dive into Russian folklore or want to try reading Valente’s work I would suggest giving this a shot. Thanks for checking in guys! Happy reading!

★★★★.5/5

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