17 Apr 2015

A Collision of Myth, Magic, and Russian History: Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente

Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente

Release Date: 20th June 2013
Publisher: Corsair
Pages: 352
Format: Paperback | Purchased

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Synopsis (from GoodReads): A glorious retelling of the Russian folktale Marya Morevna and Koschei the Deathless, set in a mysterious version of St. Petersburg during the first half of the 20th century. 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.

My thoughts:

Oh, I will be cruel to you, Marya Morevna. It will stop your breath, how cruel I can be. But you understand, don’t you? You are clever enough. I am a demanding creature. I am selfish and cruel and extremely unreasonable. But I am your servant. When you starve I will feed you; when you are sick I will tend you. I crawl at your feet; for before your love, your kisses, I am debased. For you alone I will be weak. 

I’ve been sitting at my computer for the last fifteen minutes, trying to express how I feel about this book. For me, that is definitely a sign of a good book. I usually make notes while I read, and know exactly what I want to say about the novel – things that I liked, things that the author could’ve done better… I didn’t do this with Deathless. I got lost in Deathless, and didn’t want to leave.

It is categorised as a fairy-tale retelling, when it seems to be telling the history of Russia using characters and features of the Russian folktale The Death of Koschei the Deathless (sometimes called Marya Morevna). I wasn't familiar with the folktale before reading the novel, so I couldn't say whether or not it is a good retelling. I have read reviews from people who have grown up with these stories, and have been impressed with the way that Valente has embraced Russian culture - it appears that Valente has really done her research; I have also read reviews from people who have grown up with these stories and accused Valente of cultural appropriation. The historical accuracy of the novel – the Russian Revolution,  the eastern campaign of World War II, The Leningrad blockade – sometimes makes it feel like it’s more of a historical fiction, there are elements of realism that turn it into magical realism… Valente seems to effortlessly blend together Russian folklore with Russian history.  The writing is almost lyrical, yet describes brutality and horror in great detail.

The story that Valente tells is layered, poignant, painful and beautiful. It is humorous - it uses black humour, but humour nonetheless; it is bittersweet, it is brutal and strange and complex and intimate. It captures Russian folklore - tales of rusalkas and leshy, firebirds and domovye - and uses it to tell the story of life and death, war and loss. But it is Valente's writing of this book that makes it so enjoyable. The characterisation leaves me... scratching my head a little. My impression of the original folktale is that Koschei was the villain of the story, and it seems odd that in a retelling that gives him the Regina Mills treatment, there is very little attention paid to the new villain, Viy. The secondary characters are one-dimensional and fall a little flat. Most of them are killed off at some point, but it's difficult to care when I'm not given any reason to care for them. The only I really cared for were Kseniya and Sofiya, the rusalka mother and daughter who lived with Marya and Ivan, but that was probably because I was given reasons to care about them.

And then there's the biggest problem I have with the novel: the relationship between Marya and Koschei makes me uncomfortable. I cannot believe that they are starcrossed lovers or meant to be.
 Marya would be better off without Koschei, but this point seems to be ignored for the sake of the plot. For most of the book their relationship doesn't seem to have any kind of emotional connection, and at times just feels... rape-y. They emotionally abuse one another, and are constantly locked in a power play. Marya's other love interest, Ivan isn't much better. He treats her horribly and lacks any kind of common sense. Marya deserves to be the warrior queen she was originally depicted to be, kicking butts and taking names.

Read Deathless for the beautiful writing and strong story-telling, but beware the characterisation.

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