Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Spun with vivid magic, the Russian folktale "The Death of Koschei the Deathless" is reimagined as a love story between Koschei, the Tsar of Life, and warrior woman Marya Morevna during the early days of the Soviet Union.
Catherynne Valente showcases her dense Rococo style, each sentence brimming with adjectives, like bibelots tucked between spare syllables. She brings in a number of creatures native to Russian folklore that were new to me: leshy (a male woodland spirit), vintovnik (a rifle imp, a type invented by Valente), domovoi (like a cross between a brownie and a poltergeist), vila (fairies), and rusalki (mermaids). There are also appearances by the ever-terrifying Baba Yaga, Zmey Gorinich (a Slavic three-headed dragon, adapted appropriately for Stalinist Russia), and the prophetic harpy-like Gamayun.
The main event, though, is the battle that takes place between Koschei the Deathless and his newest wife Marya Morevna, both of whom seem to be incarnations of Bluebeard (a story you can find for free here). Marya starts out at a disadvantage to Koschei, who has the advantage of infinite age and magic, but she learns quickly and the struggle of wills between them is an equal one. The plot is much less important to Valente than imagery of life and death, mixed in with the Siege of Leningrad.
Reading about folklore from another culture can be rewarding and disorienting as the stories re-present familiar figures, all transmuted enough to be recognizable and still strange, lending a frisson to the experience that must carry the reader through bizarre landscapes. Marya and Koschei's struggle is portrayed as a cyclical one, an unavoidable balancing act of fate. Valente has the narrative style of fairy tales down cold, but the style creates a distance between character and reader. The characters are less real people than they are types enacting symbolic actions (though rarely predictable ones). This isn't a story you read to find out what happens next, but rather to enjoy being told it by Valente's distinctive voice.
There are plenty of great books to go to for those who love Deathless. (And I love Russian literature in general, so it's been difficult to whittle down the options!) I would suggest moving on to The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. It's about a later period in Soviet history, but just as strange and compelling: the devil comes to Moscow, a city where no one believes he exists anymore, to wreak havoc on the good comrades there.
A classic short story with traces of humor and a generous dose of magical realism is "The Nose" by Nikolai Gogol (set in St. Petersburg).
Throughout Deathless, Valente quotes the poets Anna Akhmatova and Alexander Pushkin, two important Russian poets. Pushkin was an unparalleled literary genius, touchy as a porcupine: he fought 29 duels and was killed in one at the age of 37. Americans are more familiar with Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, but Pushkin is the Russian whose reputation in his homeland is as towering as Shakespeare's in the English-speaking world. You may want to start with his poetry or with The Queen of Spades and Other Stories.
The story of the uncanny immortal lover reminded me strongly of Meredith Ann Pierce's Darkangel Trilogy, which starts with The Darkangel. For more twisted fairy tales for grownups, check out Angela Carter's reimagining of the Bluebeard story: The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories.
"And morality is more dependent on the state of one's stomach than of one's nation." - 65
"Everyone is a criminal! We are beset on all sides by antirevolutionary forces. Naturally, then, humans fall into three categories: the criminal, the not-yet-criminal, and the not-yet-caught." - 131
"Many things in Buyan are mixed-up and backwards - mossy rocks and guns that speak, birds that turn into men and buildings like youths - but you will notice that everything living has a mouth. Mouths bite and swallow; they talk; they taste. They kiss. A mouth is the main tool for living." - 146