I finished reading this book the night I met Catherynne M. Valente, and as a result, it feels a little weird to write about it. It’s also going to be really difficult. I almost don’t feel qualified to talk about this book, but I will do my best.
Deathless is essentially a retelling of one of the Russian stories starring Koschei the Deathless (as far as I know, I am not familiar at all with Eastern European myths. The only character I was familiar with in the entire story was Baba Yaga). However, in this version, the star of the show is Marya Morevna, who first witnessed magic when she was six and saw a bird fall out of a tree, turn into a man, and marry her eldest sister. She is sixteen when Koschei comes knocking on her door and spirits her off to his hidden kingdom called Buyan, and so he becomes her husband. Koschei is the Tsar of Life and is constantly fighting a war against the Tsar of Death that is “always going badly”, and all of this takes place against the backdrop of Stalinist Russian, particularly World War Two. Over the course of the story, Marya struggles to come into her own now that she is part of a myth and thus has a role to play that she didn’t agree to, much less fully understand.
The reason it’s so difficult to talk about this book is because there are so many different threads running crisscross through the story, and they all relate to each other and form a cohesive whole. The story is based on an old myth, and as such, it has that timeless, larger-than-life quality about it, because myths are some of the first explanations for why the world is the way it is. Thus, the story follows certain rules – for instance, many actions occur in threes. This particular retelling explores the concepts of life and death and how they are each one side of the same coin. You can’t have one without the other, and for large-scale death to even have the impact it does, there has to always exist the potential for further life. In this case, life does not mean living in pure happiness and free of pain. Life can be even more brutal than actual death, but it wouldn’t be life if there weren’t any possibility of pain or eventuality of death (surprisingly, this all fits in ridiculously well with my anthro final about Artaud and the Theatre of Cruelty that I finished writing last week).
Because this is all a myth, an important aspect is that this story has constantly played out and will continue to play out throughout all of time, and this particular incarnation is merely one more repetition. Koschei always steals a young maiden and marries her, a man named Ivan always falls in love with her, and Ivan will eventually go into the cellar to find Koschei chained up, and then he’ll steal the maiden once again. Marya’s story is largely about growing up, transforming from an impressionable, young girl who believes magic will save her into a hardened woman who is familiar with the brutality of war and the knowledge that magic is no less harsh and unforgiving than real life. I also enjoyed Koschei’s transformation from a powerful, distant demon that seduces maidens as easily as breathing and demands their utter obedience into a man who would submit himself to anything for the sake of the one he loves. And so he does. Love is like any other relationship, a continuous exchange of power. It all depends on who wields it, how, and why.
Setting this story against the backdrop of the beginning of the Soviet Union and Stalin’s regime was an excellent choice, particularly concerning the act of hiding deeds and identities and following the Party line. Ostensibly, everyone in Russia is a member of the Party, but, like Buyan, there is always another world hidden underneath where the real truth exists. In particular, the ending worked perfectly with this idea. Similarly, the Revolution and World War Two affected the outcome of the war between the Tsars of Life and Death because the Tsar of Death is able to use the lives of those who have died to fight on his side, and thus an army of the deceased can overwhelm the living. This book is incredibly dark and bleak, but there are many moments of friendship, of family, and love (of course). Even in the end when the war is over, there’s still the knowledge that the story will begin again, in a future time.
Like I said, I don’t feel at all like my review/rambling does this book justice. Catherynne M. Valente’s books are those that you reread over and over in order to uncover and absorb all the details and layers that eluded you the first time. The book is not easy to read in that you can skim every other page and still follow the story. Here, you need to slow down, take your time, and savor every single passage because there’s a little something hidden within each one. Deathless is a dark, yet lovely book, and one that I will be definitely be returning to in the future.
Disclosure – library