, Catherynne Valente ambitiously takes on the Russian tale of Koschei the Deathless, turning the traditional tale of the wicked bride-stealing Tsar of Life into a modern fable featuring one such bride, Marya Morevna, who learns to match Koschei in deviousness.
“The rapt pupil will be forgiven for assuming the Tsar of Death to be wicked and the Tsar of Life to be virtuous. Let the truth be told: There is no virtue anywhere. Life is sly and unscrupulous, a blackguard, wolfish, severe. In service to itself, it will commit any offense. So, too, is Death possessed of infinite strategies and a gaunt nature- but also mercy, also grace and tenderness. In his own country, Death can be kind.”
One thing that strikes me about almost every work of Russian fiction (or fiction set in Russia, as Valente is not herself Russian, but her mastery of detail might convince you otherwise): Russia just has not ever been a very nice place. It has beauty and magic and heroism, but the people are hard survivors of centuries of lethal winters and murderous invaders and cruel rulers. Softness and comfort, are rare, precious things. Deathless
is a story with all of the above, but Marya Morevna's little bits of kindness and comfort are, as you might expect, hard-won and easily lost.
This book also blends traditional Russian folk tale and all the creatures that go with it (yes, Baba Yaga, of course, and also firebirds and house-elves and russalkas and Father Winter) with modern history, or 20th century history in this case. Marya Morevna begins the story as a fifteen-year-old girl who proudly wears the red scarf of Lenin's Young Pioneers, a shy girl who reads too much Pushkin and can also see birds turn into men. Each of her sisters is courted and taken away by a suitor who, unbeknownst to anyone but Marya, is a bird.
The blending of mythology with Soviet history is not a contradiction; much of the book proceeds in understandable but not always linear and never very rational fashion. Magic and fairy tale logic will not bend for prosaic reality, not even in the USSR. But that doesn't mean magic and fairy tales are unaffected by the USSR. Marya's next encounter with it is the discovery of the Domovoi, or house-elves, living in the house her family now has to share with eleven other families. Since all the families moved in, so did their Domovoi, and the little creatures have formed a Committee and become loyal members of the Party. As they tell Marya, they can cause much more mischief by writing letters than by breaking crockery.
I think the Stalinist house-elves were my favorite part of the book.
Eventually, Koschei the Deathless comes for Marya, marries her, and as she's being swept off her feet, she gets some hard lessons from Koschei's sister, Baba Yaga. Like most fairy tale wives who marry evil immortal sorcerers, Marya's story isn't supposed to have a happy ending. But Marya decides she's not going to be just another Yelena warehoused and entombed.
“Husbands lie, Masha. I should know; I've eaten my share. That's lesson one. Lesson number two: among the topics about which a husband is most likely to lie are money, drink, black eyes, political affiliation, and women who squatted on his lap before and after your sweet self.”
Catherynne Valente is always working with fairy tales, one way or the other, and you might think of her as the modern era's Brothers Grimm, retelling much older stories beautifully and imaginatively but without flensing off the horror and the grime. Valente plays all the traditional chords, like skillful use of the Rule of Three exactly when appropriate. Her gift is also with words: her books are endless collections of quotable quotes, profound paragraphs, elegant sentences crafted just so. You wish every fantasy author could fill her prose with such pretty words that regardless of the story, you always know someone will say something on the next page that you want to cut out and remember.
And yet... not quite 5 stars. Sigh. Why not? Because as much as I love and admire Catherynne Valente's writing, she's like an undisciplined genius, going off wherever the story takes her, filling it with whatever words and images strike her fancy. There is a plot of sorts to this book, but it's the plot of a fairy tale, and so it meanders, it breaks logic, it ends vaguely. Maybe it's churlish of me to want a novelistic structure in a modern fairy tale, but sometimes reading Valente is like stuffing yourself with fudge. The box is there, full of the stuff, and you can't stop helping yourself, but you know you're really eating too much and this is too much rich gooey sweetness for one sitting. I've had this reaction to most of her adult books; oddly enough, it's her MG Fairyland
books, where perhaps her perfect command of heart and soul and sentences and imperfect command of narrative are ideally suited, that have me rapturously in love with her writing. I really wanted Deathless
to be an adult Girl Who...Fairyland
book, and it.... wasn't... quite. But I can easily see this being a 5-star book for less curmudgeonly, nitpicky, and critical readers than myself, and it did nothing to diminish my appreciation for Catherynne Valente as a writer.