Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente

Child of the revolution, maiden of myth, bride of darkness A handsome young man arrives in St Petersburg at the house of Marya Morevna. He is Koschei, the Tsar of Life, and he is Marya’s fate. Koschei leads Marya to his kingdom, where she becomes a warrior in his tireless battle against his own brother, the Tsar of Death. Years pass. Battle-hardened, scarred by love, and longing for respite, Marya returns to St Petersburg – only to discover a place as pitiful as the land she has just fled: a starveling city, haunted by death. “Deathless” is a fierce story of life and death, love and power, old memories, deep myth and dark magic, set against the history of Russia in the twentieth century. It is, quite simply, unforgettable.

Such a curious book. It’s a shame that I haven’t experienced more Russian fairy-tales or folklore before reading this novel, as it would have heightened the reading experience. Knowledge of the tales that Deathless is based on would enable the reader to craft Valente’s world with ease, as such some moments become stumbling blocks. At times, the alien feel of the folklore led to confusion or a slight loss in concentration, as the mind attempts to process the weird and wonderful. However, these are minuscule gripes as it’s the weird and wonderful that elevate this book to a thing of greatness.

Marya Morevna is a dreamer, a lover of the idea of magic and one day while daydreaming through her window she spies a bird fall from its branches and jump up as a handsome man. This happens several times and each time they come to her door asking for the girl at the window. Her mother pushes Marya’s elder sisters onto these men, leaving Marya constantly dreaming about the magic that could have been for her. Then, suddenly, Koschei – the Tsar of life – knocks on her door to whisk her away and make her his bride. Thus starts a journey through imagination and philosophy on life and death. To attempt to write more about the plot would be pointless as it would make no sense here – out of context – due to the high level of surrealism throughout.

Rather than Marya living under a cramped roof with many other families, she is living in a world thrumming with life. Her friends are bizarre creatures – made from rocks and plants or an amalgamation of person and weapon. Here, the novel has a feel of Alice in Wonderland, though Deathless has a much more adult feel. Valente could very easily outdo 50 Shades with the sexual writing on display. Marya and Koschei live a very edgy life and that comes through in the sex scenes with are brimming with punishment and submissive elements.

The story of Marya is an emotionally heavy one. This is fairytale storytelling at its original best – full of dark and disturbing characters and situations. Valente uses the World Wars as a backdrop to Marya’s story and her life weaves in and out of the real history of Russia during those times. The combination of fairytale and real world war is beautiful. The author uses this backdrop to communicate the finality of death with a poetic finesse. Much like her prose.

Valente’s writing holds an archaic style combined with a contemporary way of storytelling. Her words flow effortlessly and strive to tell a brutal story in a wonderful way. This is my first experience of Valente, but I am now bewitched and must seek out more. Upon finishing I was left with a sadness with leaving Marya’s life and world behind. I know that one day I will reread this novel just to dive back in to the folklore. For now, I’m left with searching Google and Wikipedia for more on the original tales.

Published by Corsair. This book was kindly sent by the publisher for review.

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