Koschei the Deathless is to Russian folklore what devils or wicked witches are to Western European culture: a menacing, evil figure, the villain of countless stories that 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 20th 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.
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I've mentioned in these reviews that I think that a narrator, especially one who is also an actor, can make a good book seem better; a bad narrator can sometimes tarnish the appeal of a book that is well-written. But, when a great performer reads an incredibly well-written book, the synergy can bring the result to a whole new dimension of achievement. I think that it is this latter case that best describes Deathless.
Firstly, my Audible version of the book thankfully avoids the very annoying repetitions of “he said,” “she said…” within the narrative. Instead, the characters are acted out by the brilliant Kim de Blecourt. She has a voice for each character, sometimes subtle in nature but always unmistakably characteristic and consistent from the beginning to the end of the story. Performing a story rather than just reading it is a difficult task to pull off well as I can only surmise given how often I have listened to poorly narrated let alone unadroitly performed novels on Audible. And perhaps because of Ms. de Blecourt, I loved every one of the characters in this story: the heroine, the hero and even the villains who I came to never think of as true villains (see the blurring of dichotomies below.) The crones, elves and goblins, et al were beautifully drawn and all easily visualized from the words of the author and voice of the narrator. The sweetness and compassion that comes through in the voice of the narrator seem totally in keeping with the themes, tone and thrust of the story.
Anna Akhmatova is the translator of Deathless. I have read criticisms elsewhere of translators who were unable to accurately carry across in translation either the meaning or beauty of the original language. I’m thinking of Solaris in its translation from Polish to English. While I cannot speak to the accuracy or translational skill of Ms. Akhmatova, what came across for me was prose of extraordinary beauty. And, given what at first blush can only be described as a book fraught with rather terrible themes, the projection of any kind of beauty in the midst of all that darkness and terror is only the first of its many dichotomies. And it is just these dichotomies that I found to be one of the most interesting aspects of the book.
There are themes of extreme opposites that are clouded dichotomies within the story. For example, there is a war between two brothers, two realms, life and death but even between these, the author blurs the line. The only difference between fact and fiction is only that which the reader allows oneself to suspend disbelief [sic] in. This is a story about power: power taken and power freely given. Incidentally, the theme of dominance and submission is explored throughout the book and might be a bit too extreme for some readers. Yet here too, the subject of sadomasochism is handled by the author with such grace, finesse and aplomb, that this reader found nothing repugnant or distasteful; another blurring of what might be considered by some to be clearly right or wrong.
Valente’s lyricism combines eastern European folklore with early to middle 20th century Soviet history. The story itself speaks of that interesting amalgam of facts and fairytales. That particular time and place served not only as a poignant backdrop but was, I believe, a metaphor for enriching a much deeper story often as cold, bleak and bitter as its exterior. While listening to the book, I often had visions of an elder, Russian grandmother with a twinkle in her eye reading tales to her grandchildren at night next to a crackling fire. Though be warned, Deathless is not a book for the very young… maybe not even for the sorta’ young. It does contain some rather mature content.
As in any good fairytale, there are lessons that are taught even if not always learned by the characters. I found that most of the lessons were not taught by the protagonists but usually by the lesser characters in the story: the spirits, demons and other magical creatures portrayed in supporting roles. Here too the dichotomies come full circle with the tutors coming to learn as much as they taught which often turned out to be the opposite of what they originally taught/thought to be true. Bad often morphed into good and good into bad; the dominant became the submissive and submissive dominant; young became old became young again.
And speaking of love, what is also amazing and just occurred to me, having written about all the dichotomies within the pages, one missing dichotomy is that of love and hate, or even love and fear if that’s your preference. One of my favorite reviewers, who is also Russian, says in her review, “For me, this was, above anything, the story of war and loss.” I can see how one might get that from Deathless. While there was war, suffering and sadness for sure, I only took away its theme of love and the beauty of its prose from between the covers. I saw suffering but found no hate! Amazing. We could blame the Bolsheviks early and Nazis later in the story for so much suffering but those were among the facts and more tangential to everything else going on in the story. My focus must have been more within the fantasy where there were few if any real villains, no bad guys (or gals.) Sure, there was the wife, if you can call her that, who ate their husbands but it sounded like they deserved it. She was great fun and one of my favorite characters.
Whatever your focus, this is a driveway book: one that you arrive home to while listening and find yourself unable to get out of the car; you sit and continue listening because you cannot stand to interrupt the story. I read the book in two days and it is one I probably would not have chosen to read or listened to in the first place. While I am a sucker for a good love story, it has to be a really good one (e.g. Romeo and Juliet.) This book was more than good; it was great.
Having just been written within the last couple of years, we can probably not call Deathless a classic. For this reader, however, it is only a matter of time.
In Deathless, Catherynne Valente ambitiously takes on the Russian tale of Koschei the Deathless, turning the traditional tale of the wicked bride-stealing Tsar of Life into a modern fable featuring one such bride, Marya Morevna, who learns to match Koschei in deviousness.
“The rapt pupil will be forgiven for assuming the Tsar of Death to be wicked and the Tsar of Life to be virtuous. Let the truth be told: There is no virtue anywhere. Life is sly and unscrupulous, a blackguard, wolfish, severe. In service to itself, it will commit any offense. So, too, is Death possessed of infinite strategies and a gaunt nature- but also mercy, also grace and tenderness. In his own country, Death can be kind.”
One thing that strikes me about almost every work of Russian fiction (or fiction set in Russia, as Valente is not herself Russian, but her mastery of detail might convince you otherwise): Russia just has not ever been a very nice place. It has beauty and magic and heroism, but the people are hard survivors of centuries of lethal winters and murderous invaders and cruel rulers. Softness and comfort, are rare, precious things. Deathless is a story with all of the above, but Marya Morevna's little bits of kindness and comfort are, as you might expect, hard-won and easily lost.
This book also blends traditional Russian folk tale and all the creatures that go with it (yes, Baba Yaga, of course, and also firebirds and house-elves and russalkas and Father Winter) with modern history, or 20th century history in this case. Marya Morevna begins the story as a fifteen-year-old girl who proudly wears the red scarf of Lenin's Young Pioneers, a shy girl who reads too much Pushkin and can also see birds turn into men. Each of her sisters is courted and taken away by a suitor who, unbeknownst to anyone but Marya, is a bird.
The blending of mythology with Soviet history is not a contradiction; much of the book proceeds in understandable but not always linear and never very rational fashion. Magic and fairy tale logic will not bend for prosaic reality, not even in the USSR. But that doesn't mean magic and fairy tales are unaffected by the USSR. Marya's next encounter with it is the discovery of the Domovoi, or house-elves, living in the house her family now has to share with eleven other families. Since all the families moved in, so did their Domovoi, and the little creatures have formed a Committee and become loyal members of the Party. As they tell Marya, they can cause much more mischief by writing letters than by breaking crockery.
I think the Stalinist house-elves were my favorite part of the book.
Eventually, Koschei the Deathless comes for Marya, marries her, and as she's being swept off her feet, she gets some hard lessons from Koschei's sister, Baba Yaga. Like most fairy tale wives who marry evil immortal sorcerers, Marya's story isn't supposed to have a happy ending. But Marya decides she's not going to be just another Yelena warehoused and entombed.
“Husbands lie, Masha. I should know; I've eaten my share. That's lesson one. Lesson number two: among the topics about which a husband is most likely to lie are money, drink, black eyes, political affiliation, and women who squatted on his lap before and after your sweet self.”
Catherynne Valente is always working with fairy tales, one way or the other, and you might think of her as the modern era's Brothers Grimm, retelling much older stories beautifully and imaginatively but without flensing off the horror and the grime. Valente plays all the traditional chords, like skillful use of the Rule of Three exactly when appropriate. Her gift is also with words: her books are endless collections of quotable quotes, profound paragraphs, elegant sentences crafted just so. You wish every fantasy author could fill her prose with such pretty words that regardless of the story, you always know someone will say something on the next page that you want to cut out and remember.
And yet... not quite 5 stars. Sigh. Why not? Because as much as I love and admire Catherynne Valente's writing, she's like an undisciplined genius, going off wherever the story takes her, filling it with whatever words and images strike her fancy. There is a plot of sorts to this book, but it's the plot of a fairy tale, and so it meanders, it breaks logic, it ends vaguely. Maybe it's churlish of me to want a novelistic structure in a modern fairy tale, but sometimes reading Valente is like stuffing yourself with fudge. The box is there, full of the stuff, and you can't stop helping yourself, but you know you're really eating too much and this is too much rich gooey sweetness for one sitting. I've had this reaction to most of her adult books; oddly enough, it's her MG Fairyland books, where perhaps her perfect command of heart and soul and sentences and imperfect command of narrative are ideally suited, that have me rapturously in love with her writing. I really wanted Deathless to be an adult Girl Who...Fairyland book, and it.... wasn't... quite. But I can easily see this being a 5-star book for less curmudgeonly, nitpicky, and critical readers than myself, and it did nothing to diminish my appreciation for Catherynne Valente as a writer.