Deathless by Catherynne Valente is a more modernized retelling of the Russian folktale about the death of Koschei the Deathless, often known as “The Death of the Immortal Koschei” or “Marya Morevna.” It’s set in Stalinist Russia and is mainly about the aforementioned Marya Morevna, the woman who was sought after by both Koschei and Ivan in the story. Deathless was released in hardcover toward the end of March and is also available as an ebook.
When she was six years old, Marya Morevna was first exposed to the “naked world,” the magic that other people did not seem to notice. As she was sitting by the window, Marya saw a bird fall out of a tree and become a man. This man came to her front door, saying he had come to marry the girl in the window, and left with her oldest sister. Twice more Marya saw birds fall from their tree, turn into men, and take away her other sisters in order to marry them. This left her waiting the day her own bird would come (and with a lot of curiosity about where exactly husbands come from).
As she grows older, Marya sees more and more of the magical parts of the world, meeting the domoviye of her household and Likho, the Tsaritsa of the Length of an Hour. They all make mention of the coming of Koschei, and one day an owl drops out of the tree outside and turns into a handsome man. This time Marya was not at the window to see it, and is taken by surprise when she answers the door to find Koschei come to take her away. Yet she leaves with him, where she lives in his land and fights in his war against the Tsar of Death – at least until the day the inevitable happens and she meets her Ivan.
Ever since reading The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden, I’ve been a fan of Catherynne Valente’s writing and reading The Habitation of the Blessed cemented that belief in her skill as an author. She has a flair for gorgeous prose filled with imagery and imaginative, beautiful storytelling (and although her stories are not at all comedies, there are parts that exhibit a terrific sense of humor as well). Although she has three (!) novels coming out this year and I’m looking forward to each of them, Deathless is the one I was most excited about since I love stories based on fairy or folk tales. Also, I know very little about Russian folklore, so I was interested in learning more about these stories. Although I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden by the time it was over, I did enjoy reading this novel, especially the first half.
Deathless was a little different from the other two books I’ve read by Valente. While it contained the same creativity and wit I’ve come to expect from her work, the writing style was not nearly as elaborate. The prose was still lovely, but it was less complex with less description and more dialogue than normal. From the opening paragraphs in the first chapter, I was swept into it by the writing which was perfect for a fairy/folk tale:
In a city by the sea which was once called St. Petersburg, then Petrograd, then Leningrad, then, much later, St. Petersburg again, there stood a long, thin house on a long, thin street. By a long, thin window, a child in a pale blue dress and pale green slippers waited for a bird to marry her.
This would be cause for most girls to be very gently closed up in their rooms until they ceased to think such alarming things, but Marya Morevna had seen all three of her sisters’ husbands from her window before they knocked at the great cherrywood door, and thus she was as certain of her own fate as she was certain of the color of the moon. [pp. 15]
There are also some reoccurring patterns throughout the novel that I loved, particularly “long, thin” and the importance of the number three. There are several times when a part of the story is told with three almost identical but slightly different parts, which lent well to keeping it feeling like a fairy/folk tale retelling. Throughout the story the number three remained significant – from the marrying off of Marya’s 3 sisters to the 3 birds; to the 3 tests Baba Yaga made Marya undertake and her 3 friends she asked for help in each; to Marya’s meeting her 3 sisters later in the story. Plus the story had 3 central figures: Marya, Koscshei, and Ivan.
While Deathless is technically a fantastic novel and I very much appreciated it, I had no emotional connection to any of the characters in the story. Because of this, I didn’t love it the way I wanted to or felt it really deserved, especially later in the novel. For the first half of the story, I was quite enchanted by Marya’s youth and glimpses of the magical parts of the world as well as her relationship with Koschei. She had sort of a love/hate relationship with him – she did seem to truly love him but she also despised him for what happened to all the girls who came before her. Yet even though he was a liar who tried to tell her there were no other girls, I also felt like he was not exactly unlikeable – he was the Tsar of Life, and as such he was what he was. I loved the three tests Baga Yaga gave Marya to see if she was worthy and how Marya handled them. I also loved Marya’s friends in Koschei’s realm. However, once Marya actually married Koschei I felt some of the magic from the first half of the story was gone. This is actually perfectly fitting with the story since it’s true that at the point the awe and wonder of the discovery of this “naked world” was wearing thin, but it remains that my favorite part of the book was this sense of wonder the first half had. In the second part, Marya became a harder woman involved in a war, and although I loved the fact that the story always must unwind a certain way (in this case with Ivan coming for Marya), I wasn’t as riveted by the story after Ivan arrived. This is not to say I didn’t like the latter half of the story, just that I found myself loving the first half and not as absorbed in the second one.
Overall, Deathless is a darkly beautiful novel that keeps the feel of a folktale retelling with the repetition of the significance of three. Its prose isn’t as densely ornate as other novels by Valente, but it still retains its elegance and the novel has the same clever artistry her work is known for. In spite of my admiration for this, it never elicited the emotional response I like to have when I read a book or made me truly care for the characters involved. In addition, I wasn’t as enamored by the second part of the novel as the first, which I thought was fantastic. However, these hindrances to my total adoration of Deathless are fairly minor – and just prevent me from giving it the 10 I would have given it if these were not the case.
My Rating: 8.5/10
Where I got my reading copy: Review copy from the publisher.