Friday, March 1, 2013


Constable & Robinson, £14.99
   When 'Deathless' arrived into the shop in November, I bought it immediately. It's one book that I may well have bought purely for it's attractiveness, but as it happens I'd read Valente's 'The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making' - one of the best books I read last year (you can read my review here). I read 'Deathless' over the last few weeks, and can now officially announce that Catherynne M. Valente is my new favourite author. 
   This novel is a retelling of the classic Russian myth of Marya Morevna, Ivan Tsarevitch, and Koschei the Deathless, which I admit to only having read after finishing this book. Even without being familiar with the main characters of the myth, enough familiar characters, settings, and tropes appear in the novel that it seems like a more universal myth, albeit with a strongly Eastern European feel. 
   'Deathless' opens with the story of Marya Morevna, a young girl growing up in the earliest years of the 20th century in St. Petersburg (Leningrad, as Marya keeps forgetting to call it). She sits in her window sewing, observing the street outside. When she is six, she witnesses an extraordinary event: she sees a rook fall from a tree onto the pavement - when he gets up again he is a handsome young man in a black uniform. He knocks on the door of Marya's house, and announces that he has come for the girl in the window. Marya's mother presents Marya's eldest sister, and the bird-man agrees to marry her, having realised that Marya is not meant for him. Three times this happens - when Marya is nine her next sister marries a plover, and when she is twelve her third sister marries a shrike. So Marya continues to sit at the window, and while she sews she daydreams of the bird who will fall to the pavement and come to take her away to be his wife. 
'Kashchey the Immortal' by Viktor Vasnetsov
   In the long space of time that elapses, Marya meets the domovoi, spirits of the house. Marya has been brought to report her finding that the house has grown larger and to find out whether the house will impede on the neighbouring ones -
   '"Child", said Comrade Zvonok in a patient tone, "we are not architects. We are imps. We are goblins. If we could not make a little room on the inside without budging the outside, we would not be worth our tails. After all, we have been making our little homes in the walls for centuries."'
Fan art by fuckyeahdeathless on Tumblr
   One day when Marya's eyes are closed, an owl falls to the pavement, springs back up as a darkly handsome young man, and comes to the door to announce himself as Koschei Bessmertny. Marya packs her bag and leaves with him without a backwards glance. In the car, Koschei kisses her:
   "Koschei turned, gripped Marya’s chin, and kissed her—not on the cheek, not chastely or unchastely, but greedily, with his whole, hard mouth, cold, biting, knowing. He ate up her breath in the kiss. Marya felt he would swallow her whole.
   As the story goes on, many mythical characters appear - firebirds, a leshy, wizards, and the inimitable Baba Yaga, her house on chicken legs transformed into a car with chicken legs for her entrance. She and Marya clash - 
   '"Comrade Yaga - "
   Baba Yaga whirled on her, the tails of her fur coat whipping around. "Don't you call me comrade, little girl. We aren't equals and we aren't friends. Chairman Yaga. That comrade nonsense is just a hook by which the low pull down the high. And then what do you get? Everyone rolling around in the same shit, like pigs." 
Ivan Bilibin illustration, 1900
   The characters feast on caviar and vodka, beets, pirozhki, and black tea. Marya goes to war on her consort's behalf - Koschei is Tsar of Life and is locked in permanent war with his brother Viy, the Tsar of Death. Marya is told that this "war is always going badly". The relationship between Marya and her kidnapper/lover/tsar Koschei is an extremely complex one, full of strange savage passion and deep feeling:
   "I do not tolerate a world emptied of you. I have tried. For a year I have called every black tree Marya Morevna; I have looked for your face in the patterns of the ice. In the dark, I have pored over the loss of you like pale gold.” 
   This is a miracle of a novel - universal myths of love, war, and death told in prose that is sharp, clear, and as burning cold as the Russia it describes. Valente's writing will give you goosebumps. 

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