Reviews of Books You’ve Never Heard of: Deathless

What’s this, then?:  Deathless is Catherynne Valente’s fantasy novel about Stalinist Russia. Young Marya Morevna dreams of being taken away by a prince (even though there are no princes after the revolution), when she gets her wish, it’s Koschei the Deathless (a sort of demon/lich from Russian folklore) who comes for her.  Reviewers have been talking about this book as “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, but about Russia.”  Which I don’t think is entirely fair.  This is book is much more interested in serving as a critique, where Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, I think concerns itself primarily with being a novel and secondarily with its concerns about the meaning of Englishness.  Deathless is really fueled by its preoccupation with the love of fairy tales and its examination of fairy tale love.

Well, s’it any good?:  It’s the best fantasy novel about Stalinist Russia I’ve ever read.  The book is a joy to read, but by the sober light of day it seems a little more flawed.  Valente does a great job of making fairy tale elements work in a novel.  Every time Marya had to interact with her three sisters (of course), I couldn’t help but smile at the fairy tale repetition and variation that I knew was coming.  Most of the characters are fairy-tale characters to some extent, whether because they’re named tale characters, like Koschei or Marya or Baba Yaga, or because they’re the kind of stock characters you get in the fairy tales, like the three sisters or a dumb peasant boy who rescues a princess.  The problem is that fairy tales aren’t known for their great characterization.  Likewise, in Deathless, I felt like characters actions were more driven thematicaly than realistically.  The most interesting part is the romance between Marya and Koschei which points out that fairy-tale romances are creepy as fuck.  Koschei more or less kidnaps Marya (what does it mean to be swept off your feet?) which begins a cycle of Koschei dominating Marya, Marya leaving with another man, Ivan, Marya trying and failing to dominate Ivan (not because he’s indominatable, but because he’s too boring to let anything like that happen), Koschei coming groveling back, Marya dominating Koschei and so on.  The whole business is incredibly uncomfortable, and also kind of hawt in a bdsm sort of way (I really think its written that way intentionally).  I think the idea is that we let ourselves be taken by fantasy stories to escape the real world, but in doing so we’re just using culture to our own selfish ends.  Maybe.  The problem is, since I had a hard time reading what Marya’s and Koschei’s motivations were as a imaginary persons, I could never be sure I was piecing the thematics together properly since I didn’t feel like I had all the pieces of the puzzle. So, I just spent this whole paragraph complaining, but I have to reiterate that I enjoyed reading this book, and if you’re looking for a book about Russian fairy tale characters living in the Soviet Union (with added S&M) then this is it.

What’s the best bit?:  Chapter 23.  I guess the thing this book does really well is playing out the thought experiment of “what if fairy tale beings were real and lived under Stalin.”  Chapter 23 reveals that the narrator has all along been the domovoya (house elf) of Marya’s childhood home in Leningrad.  She explains how the inhabitants of the house starved during World War II and eventually the house itself crumbled (which also brings on the domovoya’s illness and death).  Most of the fantasy elements step into the background here and the chapter is a pretty chilling picture of life in Leningrad during wartime.  Near the end of the chapter the inhabitants of the house cook ration card stew (where you hold a ration card over a pot of water so you can boil its shadow to eat it).  This action, which, since some of Valente’s in laws lived in Leningrad at the time, I assume actually happened, nicely pulls together the idea that people may most need to draw on the world of magic and fantasy in the hardest times.

Anything else?:  Yeah.  If you get the chance, go read up some on Russian fairy tales.  They occupy this weird space of being mostly familiar but a little alien — mostly like the Grimms’ stories we all know, but way different in some of the small details (witches don’t fly on brooms but in a giant mortar and pestle).  That slight but manageable alien-ness gives them a certain peculiar charm.

Published in: on September 8, 2011 at 12:11 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I perked up when I read that Koschei was involved, because I just went on a mad Hell Boy binge. I’ll put this on the list of books to read after I finish my Martin Marathon.

  2. Awesome. Let me know what you think when you finish.

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