Catherynne M. Valente: Deathless

“Just remember that the only question in a house is who is to rule. The rest is only dancing around that, trying not to look it in the eye.”

This is my month for folktale retellings, it seems. Immediately after finishing Jones’ Arabian fantasy, Desert of Souls, I plunged into Valente’s Deathless, a very new take on a very old Russian story. In the oldest Slavic versions of the tale, Koschei the Immortal (also known as Koschei the Deathless), comes out of the darkness to steal away a human woman. Outside of Russia, the best known version of the story is probably Stravinsky’s 1910 ballet, The Firebird.

In that version, as in the older folktales, the hero is the mortal man who challenges Koschei for his imprisoned love. In Valente’s version, the stolen girl — 16-year-old Marya Morevna — knows she can rely only on herself. She is initially swept away by the overwhelming presence of the shadowy immortal, but she refuses to be fully dominated, even by a husband who is king of demons. In a marriage, the only question is who will rule and who will be ruled. Marya does not intend to be ruled.

There are numerous themes to this story, carefully layered, subtly mirroring each other. It is about love: tender and abusive; loyal and traitorous; ruined but still lingering. It is about how the world may be made anew, yet all that is old will adjust and find its place; nothing really fades away. It is about the life of cities, countries, and peoples, throughout history’s greatest upheavals. The twentieth century was a difficult time for Russia. From the inside, one wonders if it may have seemed like the nation itself faced a slow death. Can the soul of an entire people die? Can it return to life?

Valente’s rich, rich prose balances the mood of a dark, fairytale world with the immersive detail a real fairytale would never have. She is equally deft when she writes of a starving, sickly Stalinist-era Leningrad. Reading this book, one feels they have managed to put their finger on the feel of both these places. To have not only woven two such apparently disparate worlds together, but revealed a deep kinship between them, Valente should be praised. She has written the soul of Russia into this book.

(Tor, 2011)

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