Deathless, Catherynne M. Valente

Deathless, Catherynne M. ValenteDeathless by Catherynne M. Valente

First Published: 2011

Pages: 349 (Paperback)
Form: Novel

Rating:star4.5/54.5/54.5/54.5/5

A handsome young man arrives in St Petersburg at the house of Marya Morevna. He is Koschei, the Tsar of Life, and he is Marya’s fate. For years she follows him in love and in war, and bears the scars. But eventually Marya returns to her birthplace – only to discover a starveling city, haunted by death. Deathless is a fierce story of life and death, love and power, old memories, deep myth and dark magic, set against the history of Russia in the twentieth century. It is, quite simply, unforgettable.

Catching up on some reviews that, for various reasons, I never got round to writing in 2013.

Deathless is an absolutely fantastic, wonderful, intelligent, beautifully-written book. A  retelling of the Russian Fairytale, Marya Morevna and Koschei the DeathlessValente transports the story into the politically turbulent setting of 20th century Russia, and asks the very questions  I asked myself when I read the original ‘Who is Marya Morevna? And why and how does she have Koschei the Deathless locked up in a closet?’

Instead of being simply a straight up retelling, Deathless tells the story of Marya Morevna, from her childhood in ever changing St. Petersburg/ Petrograd/ Leningrad, watching the city transform around her and each of her three sisters marry a bird that fell from the tree outside her window, to her capturing the attention of the mysterious Tsar of Life, Koschei the deathless, and everything that that sets in motion.

It’s a hauntingly beautiful fusion of Russian folklore and  history, figures such as Baba Yaga, Domovoi, Likho, and Koschei himself, walking the streets of communist Russia, playing roles and parts I’d never have imagined but that worked seamlessly. The turbulence and struggles in the strange and violent fairy world reflecting the horrific struggles in the strange and violent real world, the wars, the poverty, the siege of Leningrad. For  the first three-quarters of the book it is unquestionably a five star read. Unfortunately, for me, as the story moved away from its grounding in real world history and further into the fairyland and the twisted romance between Marya and Koschei, it lost something of what made it so special. By the end it was still a beautiful wonderful story but it had shifted too far away from its roots and tried to be a bit too clever with it’s allegories for me to feel entirely satisfied with the resolution.

I would, however, recommend it to anyone who’s enjoyed Valente’s work before and, really, to anyone with an interest in Russian history or folklore.

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