How did I get it: I won an ARC from @tordotfantasy‘s #IAmDeathless contest. Thank you so much, Tor Books for having said contest. And thank you, Irene Gallo for sending the ARC to me.
Why did I get it: I love Russian folklore and I have been pining for this book for ages so I was thrilled when I won a copy. Beyond thrilled, actually.
How I would rate it: 4 and a 1/2 out of 5 stars.
Koschei the Deathless is to Russian folklore what giants or wicked witches are to European fairy tales: a menacing, evil figure; the villain of countless stories which have been passed on for generations through and storybooks and verbal lore. But Koschei has never looked quite as he does through the eyes of Catherynne M. Valente, whose modernized and transformed take on the legend brings the action to our recent past, spanning many of the great developments of Russian history.
Deathless, however, is no dry, historical tome: it lights up like fire as the young Marya Morevna transforms from a clever peasant girl, 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.
Review: I will admit to feeling a little unsure of what I thought of Deathless in the hour or so following my finishing it because it is so drastically different than a lot of what I have reviewed in the recent past. Ultimately, I felt that this is a deep, dark well of a book and contained within it are creepy, haunting places that I did not want to leave.
I think the real power of this book comes from Valente’s skill as a storyteller, from the way that old stories and otherwordly beings are capable of being affected or changed by what happens to them instead of being stagnant and set in stone. The way Life and Death are portrayed in Deathless was especially breathtaking, but really most of this book dazzled me. I don’t know if Valente’s style would work for me all of the time, but I really enjoyed her word choices and the complexity of Marya’s story. I already know that despite my usual preference for cheerful fictional worlds, this is a book I will want to read again because while Deathless was by no means difficult to read, it definitely dealt with difficult issues and did so in a remarkably engaging way.
I have to say that I enjoyed the first half of the book a little bit more than the second half, but mostly because of decisions characters made and even those decisions made sense. The first half is really about worlds being built and the second half is watching those worlds be torn apart. As a result, there were a lot of tragic elements to this story even if they were beautifully executed. I definitely found Part 4 of this book to be really disjointed compared to the rest of the book. It had a purpose, of course, but the way it was written ultimately did not work for me as a reader. Over all, I understood why events unfolded the way they did since this book not only deals with Russian folktales but what happened to Russia as a result of Stalinism. I also cannot really fault Valente for making a dark fairy tale just as dark in its somewhat modernized re-telling.
As a reader, I didn’t always like Marya Morvena and I found her to be difficult to love, but that never really interfered with or ruined my reading experience. After all, Marya being a blank slate and fairly weak-willed for a decent amount of the book was intentional. In addition, no one character in this book was meant to be easy to accept or come to terms with seeing as one of those characters is Koschei the Deathless and another was Baba Yaga. Similarly, Marya definitely took her time to develop into much of anything, but the novel and even Marya Morvena herself are both acutely aware of this fact. I find myself tempted to say Marya eventually became a heroine, but even then I’m not sure that is the right word for what she was in the end. I guess she simply became her own person and an adult. Regardless of my ever-changing levels of affection for her, I felt very involved in all Marya’s struggles, and I eventually came to care about her happiness even if I did not always like what her actions amounted to.
Honestly, how much can I possibly complain about a book that is really just about the most magical thing I’ve read in recent memory? From the bird-husbands near the beginning to the creepiness of Koschei’s home to the dialogue between Baba Yaga and Marya to the darkness of Marya’s basement, this book wove a brilliant spell and I loved reading it. And I cannot help but to applaud the wonderful re-workings and the amount of work that was put into Deathless. I am loathe to give anything away in terms of the plot, but I was delighted by the dark, sometimes disturbing rich characterization given to Koschei, Baba Yaga, and even to Marya Morvena. I loved the intersecting of real Russia with imagined Russia. I cannot think of any books like this one, not completely, and that in itself is a gift.
Deathless was also quite a refreshing change from books where everything is literally spelled out for a reader as if the reader is absolutely incapable of reaching a single conclusion on her or his own. I love that this really isn’t the case for this book as a whole. Valente just tells her story as it needs to be told with whatever language needs to be used and with whatever conclusions have to be reached. She doesn’t take short-cuts, simplify, or avoid going into dangerous places with her writing. More than anything else, I really appreciate that.
In conclusion, this was a really great book and one that I would strongly suggest picking up when it is released in April.