Deathless – Catherynne M. Valente

About the Book
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.

336 pages (hardcover)
ISBN: 978-0-7653-2630-0
Publication Date: March 29, 2011
Published by: Tor
Author’s webpage
Thanks to the wonderful people at Tor for sending me a review copy of this book.
I took a creative writing course once. My teacher made us keep a notebook we filled with “interesting passages” from books we were reading. We were supposed to fill this notebook from cover to cover in a semester with quotes, words and concepts we found in books we read. Most of the students had a really hard time with this, but I ended up filling about three notebooks in that time. The exercise taught me that words are just as much of an art form as painting and I found it exhilarating to find one of those passages in a book that transported me to another place, or was written in such a unique way I simply couldn’t get it out of my mind. I found a passage like that in Deathless in the very first paragraph, and I knew from that moment on that this book would be an artistic delight to read.
The sky sagging cold and wan, coughing spatters of phlegmatic sunlight onto grey and empty farms. (p. 9)
Sunsets are described in almost every book I read. Usually the author uses them to set the tone. If there is romance, the sunset is beautiful and/or romantic. If there’s a war, the sunset looks like spattered blood or something of that nature. It sets an amazing tone, and this sentence is no different. Valente sets the stage for the rest of the book beautifully with this one sentence. It’s eerie, strange and somewhat haunting, and so is Deathless.
Deathless is a retelling of a Russian fairytale regarding a character named Koschei the Deathless and is set in the communist era. Thus, Deathless seems to straddle the line between myth and alternative history. Valente stays true to the tone she sets in the opening of the book. Deathless is a dark wonderland and a fascinating journey through the authors imagination. This book will take the reader on a journey through haunting lands that will stay with you long after you finish the last page.
Valente writes Deathless as though she is telling a fairytale. This was, for me, the most intriguing part of this book. Traditional elements that can be found in myth can easily be found here, an example would be the rule of three. Such as three birds come and transform into men who marry Marya’s three sisters, three gifts that are given, three tasks that must be performed and so forth. This type of traditional story element inserted into Deathless throughout lends an untraditional book a very traditional air. I almost felt as though I was sitting around a fire with the village elder spinning a tale for me. I must tip my hat to Valente for staying true to the book’s roots in this way and paying homage to the original tale she used as inspiration.
That’s not to say Deathless is stale. Valente’s insertion of an old tale into a (somewhat) modern period of history keeps the book very unique. It’s interesting to see how she works incredibly old themes into a new and unique setting. Yes, Deathless is dark, but it’s also hauntingly beautiful. Valente’s writing takes this book to an amazing new level. Nothing about it is typical, or described in any generic-but-creative way. Her melodic writing and passion for the content are obvious and they truly do kick this book to a new, artistic dimension I never knew existed before now.
Though I can’t say enough for the writing in Deathless, I can say that the plot was strange enough to keep me from being fully immersed in it. I did struggle through portions and found myself putting the book down for a day at a time to absorb what I had just read. While I can appreciate the content, the writing style and Valente’s obviously incredibly well researched setting and lore, I also found the darkness perhaps a bit oppressive, especially toward the end. It’s rare for me to complain about a book being a bit too dark, as I am a person who thrives on dark content and more depressing themes. I will freely admit that I read Deathless more to be immersed in the incredible artistic merit of Catherynne M. Valente more than to enjoy the plot itself.
Despite that, Deathless is amazingly deep with themes layered upon themes. It’s a dark well that readers can devour bit by bit and read over and over again to get more out of. This will probably appeal to many, however, the deep nature of the book accompanied by its near constant darkness may serve to throw off some readers who may struggle with the lack of light. Though I will add that plenty of hopeful and lighter themes are there, if the reader looks for them.
Marya is, perhaps, one of the most interesting characters I’ve ever had the joy to read about. I never did feel sympathetic with her, nor did she ever cause me to stray from the grey line I found myself on, and either like nor deeply loathe her. I felt incredibly neutral regarding Marya, which is probably part of the reason I never felt absolutely absorbed in the book as a whole. However, the fact that I did feel fairly neutral about her allowed me to enjoy the writing and plot more than I otherwise would have if I had been character obsessed. Despite that, I hesitate to say that Deathless is plot rather than character driven. It’s yet another line that Valente subtly straddles with this work.
This is, perhaps, the longest review I’ve written on this blog, and that should say something about Deathless. It’s a book that’s hard to pin down. I have no doubt it will come to mean different things to different people. Deathless is a deep well of meaning, a hauntingly beautiful and incredibly dark tale woven into a stark period of history. Valente’s writing is what makes this book fly. She uses words like a master painter uses paint and I can guarantee that whether or not you read this book and end up truly enjoying it on every level, her writing will probably astound you. Deathless is incredibly well researched and is an amazing exercise in the telling of traditional fairytales. While this book never did quite fully connect with me due to plot and characterization, it was incredibly easy to ignore. Despite that, Deathless is the kind of book that makes me gape in awe at Valente’s sheer brainpower to put something like this together and will stick with me for long after I’ve finished it.  
4/5 stars

5 Responses

  • redhead

    I'm about 100 pages into Deathless right now, and loving it. Valente is quickly turning into my favorite newly found author.

    I'm right there with you, feeling like I'm sitting at a fire with the village elder getting bits and peices of the folklore of my people.

    I don't think I've gotten to the opressively dark parts yet. . .

  • Sarah (Bookworm Blues)

    I think it was the overall tone that was really dark to me rather than any specific parts. That is also probably just a viewpoint of mine. I think this book can be incredibly fluid, appearing as very different things (dark, light, character focused, plot focused etc) to different people.

  • Kristen

    Great review! I'm almost 300 pages into this now, and I'm loving it although I agree with you about feeling neutral toward Marya. Valente's writing and books are amazing – both beautiful and imaginative, but I never do become quite as attached to her characters as I'd like to in any of the books I've read by her.

  • Sarah (Bookworm Blues)

    Thanks for the compliment! This book made me really excited to check out more of Valente's books. She is an amazing author. I was literally blown away by her prose.

    I'm excited to see your review!

  • Nathaniel Katz

    I haven't read Deathless yet, but my experience with Valente leads me to believe that the prose will be fantastic. I sometimes feel like the writing/imagery is so strong it takes away from the plot, but, then again, that's her "style."

    If you like short fiction, I'd really recommend reading Valente's Ventriloquism collection, or just some of the individual pieces online. It's fantastic. More concentrated than her novels, but easier to digest as a whole.

    And I know what you mean when it comes to transcribing interesting passages (and I'm surprised that others do that!). For some authors, such as Valente, I sometimes feel like I'm just recoyping the whole book.

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