Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente

Author: Catherynne M. Valente
Title: Deathless
Themes: love, power, humanity, war, death

Plot: From Amazon

Twentieth-century Russian history provides a background for Valente's lush reimagining of folkloric villain Koschei the Deathless and his dalliance with Marya Morevna, a clever but troubled young woman. After Koschei sweeps Marya away from her family's home in St. Petersburg-Petrograd-Leningrad, Baba Yaga assigns her three tasks that will make her worthy of marrying Koschei. As she spends more time in Koschei's Country of Life, Marya starts to become too much like her unearthly lover, until naïve Ivan Nikolayevich helps her regain her humanity (as well as the sympathy of the reader). Valente's lush language and imagery add to the magic and fundamentally Russian nature of the story, drawing pointed parallels between the Soviet Union's turmoil and the endless war between Koschei and his brother, Viy. Readers used to the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault will find this tale peculiar but enchanting.

My Thoughts: Reading Deathless was a revelation for me. It was my first Valente (certainly not my last) and it shocked me. I devoured this disturbing, sensual, and beautiful re-imagined folktale. I can't say that there is a single likable character in the whole novel...with a cast ranging from humans, spirits, demi-gods (??), and seasons. But they are compelling. The imagery alone is fantastic-Marya lives in a human world full of twelve mothers, red scarves, and house spirits. Then she is transported (it's a long trip including trials and feasts which is an unnerving and delightful sequence in itself) to the land of Life which is populated by spirits, living architecture, and the unending struggle against Death and his kingdom.

In addition to the bold and bizarre world-building, Marya enters into marriage with Life, who puts on skin to please her. The exploration of an open marriage and bdsm is intriguing though certainly not the main focus of the novel. This melding of Russian folklore is truly about war and loss and that all things End. I'm still not sure if I want to read all the fantastic elements of the story as an escapist fantasy from the realities of starving during a crumbling regime in mid-century Russia or as a wonderful surrealist dark fiction.

Rating: ****1/2
The only reason this doesn't have five stars is because I know this dark magical realism thing doesn't appeal to everyone. 

Similar Books: Amazon recommends Gregory Maguire and Neil Gaiman and similar authors...but I am forced to disagree. Neither gets as grimy, dirty, dark, and transcendent as Valente does in Deathless. With that said, I really can't think of any similar reads off the top of my head. Oops.

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