by Catherynne M. Valente
Cover Artist: Beth White
Review by Benjamin Wald
Tor Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765326300
Date: 29 March 2011 List Price $24.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
In Deathless, Cathrynne M. Valente works her transformative magic on the Russian fairytale of Koschei the deathless. Transplanting the tale into Second World War era Russia, Valente imbues the fairytale with a contemporary relevance, while at the same time giving the historical backdrop the feel of a fairytale. Deathless is a love story of sorts, but it could not be further from the saccharine clichés of the fairytale romance. The romance of Deathless is mixed with bitterness and loss, a profound and thought provoking meditation on relationships and marriage.
The novel follows Marya who is marked from a young age as someone who sees things other miss, from the birds who turn themselves into men to marry her sisters to the domoviye, or house spirits, who live behind the stove of her house. The early part of the novel follows her childhood, showing her warring desires to fit in with others and to know more about the hidden world that only she seem to be aware of. This section of the novel comes to a close when Koschei the deathless arrives and carries her off to be his bride.
Koschei, it is now revealed, is the tzar of life, a kind of deity or elemental spirit of life. He is engaged in a never-ending war with his brother the Tzar of death, who wages his war with an army of ghosts that swells with every death among Koschei's forces. The story focuses on the complex relationship between Marya and Koschei, from Marya's original subordination to Koschei through her slow growth into his equal, her betrayal of him for a human man, and their ambiguous reconciliation.
Valente's writing is, as always, a pleasure to read. She lays out scenes more in terms of emotional resonances than through overt description. She makes expert use of the traditional fairytale technique of repetition of key phrases and the recurrence of events, but she also knows when to frustrate the expectation of such reoccurrence to make her point. She juxtaposes the supernatural with the harsh realities of Russia in the Second World War, and both seem equally harsh and mysterious. When Valente gives us a dragon as a secret policeman, amassing treasure and devouring lives, the parallel is both shocking and yet perfectly appropriate.
Marya is a fascinating character, who cleverly subverts the traditional role of damsel in distress. Marya is fierce, resourceful, and yet still deeply human and vulnerable. The story is in many ways an exploration of Marya's struggle between embracing the human world to which she longs to belong and the supernatural world of mystery and adventure, a choice that many fantasy fans will relate to. However, Deathless goes beyond this original choice, showing that in the end the two worlds are not as different as Marya might wish to believe; there is war and hardship in both, and the struggle to survive and carve out a life for oneself are largely the same.
Deathless is a beautifully written, evocative novel. Valente has insightful things to tell us about the classic themes of love, relationships, and self-discovery. Some of what she has to say is sad, or at best bitter-sweet, but there is both beauty and truth in the telling. Anyone who enjoys fairytales for adults needs to read this book.