Tor, 2011, 352 pages
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.
Deathless is a retelling of The Death of Koschei the Deathless, but set in Soviet Russia, with winter and the Germans advancing in 1942. And of course as you would expect from Catherynne Valente, Marya Morevna in this version is not merely a princess to be carried off by competing suitors.
At times, Marya, the true protagonist of Deathless, seems to be a grown-up, Russian version of September, from Valente's Fairyland books. She has a similar arc: a young, imaginative child who sees magical things, and then becomes part of the magical things, and learns that magical things can hurt.
"Marya Morevna! Don't you know anything? Girls must be very, very careful to care only for ribbons and magazines and wedding rings. They must sweep their hearts clean of anything but kisses and theater and dancing. They must never read Pushkin; they must never say clever things; they must never have sly eyes or wear their hair loose and wander around barefoot, or they will draw his attention!"
Marya has watched three birds fall from the sky, turn into men, and take her three sisters away. So she waits by the window for her own bird-husband, but it is not a bird who comes for her, but Koschei the Deathless.
Valente's reimagining and recontextualizing of traditional myth and folklore is applied here to a very Russian story. Koschei and Baba Yaga, dragons and russalkas and leshies and domovoi, all adapt to the new world and become loyal Party apparatchiks.
Well, Koschei and Baba Yaga, not so much.
"The goblins of the city may hold committees to divide a single potato, but the strong and the cruel still sit on the hill, and drink vodka, and wear black furs, and slurp borscht by the pail, like blood. Children may wear through their socks marching in righteous parades, but Papa never misses his wine with supper. Therefore, it is better to be strong and cruel than to be fair. At least, one eats better that way. And morality is more dependent on the state of one’s stomach than of one’s nation."
This is not just an old Russian fairy tale retold as a Soviet one. It's got all of Valente's usual verbal adroitness, as well as her subversive sexual politics. Koschei is an immortal sorcerer, practically a god. Marya Morevna is just the latest mortal girl he's taken a fancy to. She should end up like all her predecessors. Early in her childhood, when she saw birds become men and house-elves forming Party Committees, she resolved that knowledge is power and she would not allow others to know things that she didn't and use them against her. Of course she does, because she can't always control that, just as she can't immediately assert herself against Koschei, even when she knows she must.
"Oh, I will be cruel to you, Marya Morevna. It will stop your breath, how cruel I can be. But you understand, don’t you? You are clever enough. I am a demanding creature. I am selfish and cruel and extremely unreasonable. But I am your servant. When you starve I will feed you; when you are sick I will tend you. I crawl at your feet; for before your love, your kisses, I am debased. For you alone I will be weak."
Koschei himself is under attack, however, and Marya will eventually lead his armies, she will learn where his death is kept, she will stand up to Baba Yaga, and she will flee back to the mortal world and take up with her Ivan, and then Koschei will come for her again.
"A marriage is a private thing. It has its own wild laws, and secret histories, and savage acts, and what passes between married people is incomprehensible to outsiders. We look terrible to you, and severe, and you see our blood flying, but what we carry between us is hard-won, and we made it just as we wished it to be, just the color, just the shape."
This is a beautiful, tragic book, particularly the chapters on the Siege of Leningrad. All relationships in Valente's books are complicated and no one ever gets a straightforward Happy Ever After. Valente's extra layers of mythology and interpersonal dynamics make this her own creation, just as she reinvented the Prester John legend in The Habitation of the Blessed.
Have you read Deathless?
Have you read any other books by Catherynne Valente?
Verdict: This is not my favorite by Valente (those are still the Fairyland books), but Deathless shows her usual artistic genius in telling old fairy tales for a new age. Her brilliant imagination and an enviable talent for generating quotable prose make everything I've yet read by her worth reading, even if the word-bling and mad imagery can become thick to wade through at times.
Also by Catherynne Valente: My reviews of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, The Habitation of the Blessed, Silently and Very Fast.
My complete list of book reviews.