Sunday 11 March 2012

CBR4 Book 21: "Deathless" by Catherynne M. Valente

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 4 stars
Date begun: February 24th, 2012
Date finished: February 26th, 2012

Marya Morevna is the fourth youngest and fourth prettiest daughter, and spends her childhood in Revolutionary Russia. In turn she sees three different birds turn into men and take her sisters away as wives. She expects the same for herself, but when her husband finally does show up, he is Koschei the Deathless. He takes her away in a car that turns into a horse at night, and feeds her and clothes her and nurses her when she gets ill, to his castle in Buyan. Yet Marya Morevna discovers that despite what he's told her, she is not Koschei's first mortal bride, and there are challenges for a mortal girl wanting to marry the Tsar of Life. Koschei's sister, Baba Yaga, sets her three tasks that she must complete, or become soup for the old witch's stock pot. And if she does succeed in the tasks, how is she to hold Koschei's interest and to convince him that she won't be faithless to him like the endless Elenas and Vasilisas that came before her, now stuck in a factory, never aging, making yarn soldiers for his endless war with his brother, the Tsar of Death?

Deathless is one of the strangest books I think I've ever read. It takes a number of themes, characters and creatures from Russian fairy tales and weaves them into a strange mix of romantic fairy tale re-imagining, feminist treatise and history lesson. Marya Morevna's relationship with Koschei is both a romance and a power struggle, set against the backdrop of Russia and later the Soviet Union in the first half of the 20th Century. I loved the fairy tale aspects of it, although readers must be warned that this is NOT a young adult book, unlike so many of the other fairy tale retellings I've come across. This book is definitely meant for grown ups (and most teenagers would probably find it rather confusing and boring).

Valente has a marvellous grasp of language, and frequently describes things poetically, without the book becoming twee and saccharine (it's often very dark and bloody things that are lyrically depicted). The first part of the book is magical and strange, probably helped by the fact that I'm not really very familiar with Russian folklore, so every new aspect that was revealed was fascinating to me. The last third of the book, where it seems to me that Valente is using Marya Morevna to make some sort of feminist statement, didn't really work as well for me, mainly because most of the characters stared acting in a way that seemed to go against the way that they'd first been established, and the whole story seemed to turn on its head, and not in a good way. The ending is very ambiguous, and I can see how some people might find it a bit off-putting. But the book is well worth reading, because the first two thirds are so excellent, and the book presents something so different from what you normally find in fantasy.

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