Book Review: Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente
Russian folklore is not an aspect of Western/European mythology you come across much in modern fantasy – the only other example I can think of is a side story in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman – so it’s nice to see Baba Yaga and Koschei the Deathless getting their due.
Deathless is a modern retelling of the myth of Koschei the Deathless and Marya Morevna set during the turmoils of Russia during the first half of the 20th century. The opening chapter enchanted me with its fairy-tale-like repetition, and the writing style throughout reminded me of Silently and Very Fast, another work of Valente’s that I’ve enjoyed.
This is mere no fairy-tale, though, as it recasts Koschei – typically an antagonist in Russian folklore – into a flawed hero fighting a futile war against death itself. Marya Morevna, originally his beautiful young conquest, becomes his bride, and eventually a general in the battle against Viy, the Tsar of Death.
Wise readers will note that the crux of this war takes place at the beginning of World War II before and during the siege of Leningrad, and even wiser readers than I may speculate that the entire story could stand as a metaphor for the ideological changes that Russia underwent both before and after the war. However, as I am not an authority on Russian politics, I will have to settle for Baba Yaga and house imps reciting socialist political theory instead.
One of the book’s key themes is the idea of control or rulership – specifically, can a mortal woman like Marya gain the upper hand as the wife of Koschei, who is immortal? Ultimately, she can and does by adopting his methods and becoming as casually cruel as he – but such growth takes a long time to occur in the novel, and until then she remains frustratingly passive. I get the sense that this is deliberate on Valente’s part though; in one pivotal scene, Marya attempts to seduce another man using food the way Koschei seduced her, and the man in question doesn’t submit as easily to her overtures as she did to Koschei’s. Sometimes, you just have to be quiet and let a starving man eat.
Marya’s passivity is more than made up for by the other female characters in Deathless. I loved Baba Yaga and Madame Lebedeva, a magician who forms part of Marya’s coterie upon her entry into Kochei’s realm. Both women are intelligent and calculating, and understand how to wield power properly. Lebedeva in particular is a delight because she combines her magical skill with theatricality and refinement, yet manages to do so without becoming the insufferable sort of Mean Girl we expect of a beautiful woman who places great import on her appearance. Read the scene of Lebedeva and Marya in a magical cafe where Lebedeva holds court while very ostentatiously not eating the meal she has ordered, and you’ll realize you’re in the presence of a master storyteller.
Other images in Deathless are similarly vivid. Great attention is paid to colour and form, especially where Lebedeva is concerned. But beyond that there is the silver gleam that symbolizes the land of Death, and the deep red of garnets and pickled beets, and the gold and black of butter and caviar slathered upon fresh bread. Like Marya, Deathless casts its readers into a world of unexpected depth and luxury.
Up next: Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor