Koschei the Deathless is to Russian folklore what devils or wicked witches are to European culture: a menacing, evil figure; the villain of countless stories which have been passed on through story and text for generations. But Koschei has never before been seen through the eyes of Catherynne Valente, whose modernized and transformed take on the legend brings the action to modern times, spanning many of the great developments of Russian history in the twentieth century.
Deathless, however, is no dry, historical tome: it lights up like fire as the young Marya Morevna transforms from a clever child of the revolution, to Koschei’s beautiful bride, to his eventual undoing. Along the way there are Stalinist house elves, magical quests, secrecy and bureaucracy, and games of lust and power. All told, Deathless is a collision of magical history and actual history, of revolution and mythology, of love and death, which will bring Russian myth back to life in a stunning new incarnation.
Tell Me More: Rare is the story that wins me over from the first page, convinces me to set aside a morning to sink into its world. Rarer still is the story that leaves me literally breathless and ready to collect copies to send to people that I love. And this year? Deathless is that story.
Marya Morevna is exactly the protagonist that I’ve been looking for in YA fiction, and yet her story is directed towards adults. She is marked by danger, followed by it, until she becomes dangerous herself. There is a leashed deadliness to her every thought and move, even as a child. She sees the things no one else admits to seeing, she confronts them and calls out to them, and she understands the power of a secret, capable of destroying as it is destroyed.
I will never be without information, she determined. I will do better than my sisters. If a bird or any other beast comes out of that uncanny republic where husbands are grown, I will see him with his skin off before I agree to fall in love. For this was how Marya Morevna surmised that love was shaped: an agreement, a treaty between two nations that one could either sign or not as they pleased.
When Marya saw something extraordinary again, she would be ready. She would be clever. She would not let it rule her or trick her. She would do the tricking, if tricking was called for.
And if they thought her aimless, if they thought her a bit mad, let them. It meant they left her alone. Marya was not aimless, anyway. She was thinking.
Compared to Marya, Koschei and Ivan are two-dimensional, recognizable characters. She outshines them, compelling the reader to look at her, understand her. She is clever, more than she realizes at times, and she is resourceful. More importantly, she never truly gives up. She might I would go so far as to say that Valente didn’t created the Marya of this story–she created herself, and she will continue to exist long after the reader leaves her world.
And what a world it is: Deathless contains one of the most brilliant universes I have seen in all my years of reading. Valente uses her prose with precision, pinpointing the threads that hold both her settings and characters together. Domoyava enliven Marya’s childhood, while chyerti surround her in adulthood. The famine that held Leningrad captive in 1942 is excruciating to read about, and I feel no shame in admitting that I cried through that entire chapter. She brings the reader into Marya’s life without making a fuss about the way it happens, and the experience is earth-shattering to say the least. I did not know a writer could pluck the music out of sentences the way Valente does, and the melodies are haunting.
Beyond the beauty of the words, however, the insights shared are sharp as arrows and just as piercing. Some books might be termed “quietly feminist”–Deathless might pretend to whisper its philosophy into your ear, but it does so with the full intention of keeping those ideas there, letting them simmer before they command action. Women are front-and-centre in Deathless, from the twelve mothers who raise Marya to the widow Likho to the unforgettable Baba Yaga. Marya learns from women and breaks away from women, and it is her womanhood that empowers her to be more. Once, she is told:
Cosmetics are an extension of the will. Why do you think all men paint themselves when they go to fight? When I paint my eyes to match my soup, it is not because I have nothing better to do than worry over trifles. It says, I belong here, and you will not deny me. When I streak my lips red as foxgloves, I say, Come here, male. I am your mate, and you will not deny me. When I pinch my cheeks and dust them with mother-of-pearl, I say, Death, keep off, I am your enemy, and you will not deny me. I say these things, and the world listens, Masha. Because my magic is as strong as an arm. I am never denied.
And suddenly makeup is more than just makeup to the reader–it is as powerful as the person using it, and it is what the person chooses to make of it. So it is with life and death and love. Marya might have waited for Koschei to come to her as birds came to her sisters, she might have known less, been less, but it is her will that prevails over everything in the story.
Perhaps all a Tsaritsa is is a beautiful cold girl in the snow, looking down at someone wretched, and not yielding.
Valente doesn’t excuse or justify the choices that Marya makes. She challenges the reader to be like Marya, an indomitable survivor. For what else can you be when you are a Tsaritsa caught between Life and Death, and enamoured of both? What is there to do when war surrounds you, lives in you, and loss is the only reality you know? What is there but to survive and work and see another day? The answer is everything. Everything lies between Life and Death, and everything lies waiting for someone to realize it and call it for what it is. “Life is like that,” several characters echo, and so it is.
The Final Say: Catherynne M. Valente has won me over as a faithful reader, and I will live the rest of my life hungering for another story like Deathless.
Catherynne M. Valente is an author, poet, and sometime critic who has been known to write as many as six impossible things before breakfast. She is to blame for over a dozen works of fiction and poetry, including The Orphan’s Tales, Palimpsest, Deathless, and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. She has won the Tiptree Award, the Andre Norton Award, the Mythopoeic Award, the Lambda Award, the Rhysling Award, and the Million Writers Award for best web fiction. She lives on an island off the coast of Maine with her partner, two dogs, an enormous cat, and a slightly less enormous accordion.