Review: Deathless, by Catherynne M. Valente

Hail fellows and well met. This here is hopefully the first of many installments of the The Ginger Waif’s Genre Book Reviews for the Chronically Imaginative. I’m going to kick off with Catherynne M. Valente’s Deathless, and I’ll start by admitting right up front that I love this book. It’s wonderful, it’s horrible, it’s lyrical, and it will get under your skin and eat you. And you’ll be okay with that.

So what’s it about? Broadly, it’s about Marya Morevna, who is sometimes a girl in Russia and sometimes a queen in the Country of Life, and the rest of the time sort of makes it up as she goes. Deathless is a retelling of a fairy tale, or rather of all the fairy tales, and it’s as much about stories as it’s about the doings of its cast of characters. And the fairy tales themselves have their own internal mythology. It’s stories all the way down. It’s about life and death and the significance of either or both or neither. It’s too rich a book to sum up, actually, so let’s bring it back to Marya.

Leaving the frame story for now, we meet Marya as a peculiar girl possessed of peculiar notions. And I’ll just let Valente introduce her.

In a city by the sea which was once called St. Petersburg, then Petrograd, then Leningrad, then, much later, St. Petersburg again, there stood a long, thin house on a long, thin street. By a long, thin window, a child in a pale blue dress and pale green slippers waited for a bird to marry her.

And a bird, you will be unsurprised to know, does appear in due course to perform the office, but that’s for later.  We hear all about Marya’s childhood, which is one of my favorite parts of the story (not least because I was lucky enough to hear Valente read the first few chapters at Conbust, and that was best described as splendid). The fairy logic and language struggle with her reality in the most fascinating way. Marya grows up in a time of change and the world shifts around her faster than she can grow up. She’s a girl who loves books and isn’t so fond of the society of children, and, y’know, there’s a reason we who love stories love us some story-loving mistfits. It’s been done, sure, but it’s done well and it’s done for a good cause.

So Marya grows up with the full knowledge that she’s peeked and seen more of the world than perhaps she ought to have, and she walks in and out of magic every few steps. There are Domovoi in the walls and bullies at school, birds who marry her sisters and uplifting Party propaganda on all sides. Marya is a girl who’s much too clever, and while she can’t always make use of or even accept what she finds, she knows herself to be a special, powerful someone, privy to secrets. And then Koschei the Deathless turns up at her door.

And before I set the stage any further, I have a confession to make. This story made me sharply aware that I know far too little about Russian folklore. I spent a lot of time with my Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures just to keep up. You might need one of these if you’ve been as remiss as I have about your Slavic folklore. Likewise, you might need a refresher on twentieth-century Russian history. Deathless is grounded deeply in both its principle worlds, and those double back on each other all the damn time.  Either way, there’s a distinct peril in walking unprepared into unfamiliar stories. Fail your Knowledge: Narrative roll and it’s straight into the pit trap of foreign conventions with you.

Back to business. Marya meets her destined and finds herself a bit less of the heroine than she fancied herself. Marya spends a lot of the story trying to break the rules of the fairy tale she’s in and not doing very well at it. More on that later. Koschei flaunts an ego that one supposes he’s earned, being the Tsar of Life and all, and proceeds to go unabashedly Taming of the Shrew on our heroine’s psyche. He rushes her about in a fantastic landscape faster than her poor head can spin, dazzling her with rich food and pretty houses and making a splendid show of fussing when the stress and strangeness make her sick. He forbids her to speak for no reason but that he can and she lets him. (The whole rest of the book could easily be said to principally concern the acquisition, meaning, and management of power.) Eventually Marya reaches his kingdom, makes some friends, meets Baba Yaga—Hell Yeah, Baba freakin’ Yaga, who manages to be about a thousand times more impressive than Koschei—is assigned some tasks to prove her worthiness, and, well, so begins the story. Sort of. The story such as ‘tis begins over and over again, and I really just have to choose a place to stop or I’ll have gushed about the whole thing. The arrival of the leads in the Land of Life launches most of the most memorable and wonderful scenes and tones and themes, though, so we’ll call the triumphant arrival the beginning.

The Land of Life is where one of the big strengths of Deathless comes into its own: The perfect juxtaposition of the fantastical and mundane. Sure, in the beginning the ostensibly human and ordinary world seems to be full of immortals and goblins and shapeshifting husbands every time you turn around, but the glut of magic and Marya’s dreamy misfit status chase all the normality away. It’s only in the purely magic world that the invasion of the everyday is really striking. The devils of Koschei’s country embrace Russia’s revolution with more enthusiasm than the humans. Bureaucratic dragons are the least of it. And when the action bolts back into reality after Marya wins her first big victory or ten, most of the magic is sullied and dying back in the Russia that is. Whether that’s a symptom of growing up or a worsening war or just a world enacting a story as it has to happen, one of the most wrenching and wonderful things about Deathless is the interplay of reality and unreality.

And the Land of Life also introduces us to Baba Yaga, who, as previously indicated, I’m in love with. She steals the book away whenever she appears by sheer force of will, and the readers and her fellow characters both are too impressed by her audacity to mind. She’s the only one who really understands the story she’s in, and the only one who actually does seem to be able to break the rules. Marya tries all the time, but she always winds up telling the same old tale. One can even get a bit frustrated with her. She’s been handed the cliffnotes to her universe and she still seems to not be able to get around them. And sometimes she doesn’t even put in any effort.

Remember that old story about the man who goes out walking and sees Death, who peers at him with as odd an expression as a fleshless skull can manage? The man consults with a wizard or his father or whoever happens to be about and seem wise, and quickly packs up his things and bolts for the most distant, unappealing locale he can manage. So let’s say he sees Death at, oh, the Lincoln Park Zoo. Now forewarned, he flees to Kankakee. As he stumbles into town, ashen faced but finally safe, he scans the horizon, and who does he see but Death? Gasp!

Stymied man: But, but Death? Just yesterday I saw you at the Lincoln Park Zoo!

Death: Yes, well, I just adopted a flamingo. I tried to say hi, but I guess you were in a hurry. And I was very surprised to run into you. You see, I knew we had an appointment today, in Kankakee!

Dun dun duuuuun! And y’know, I can accept that that’s the way the world works in worlds where fate is inescapable. If that’s the way it has to be, that’s the way it has to be. But here’s the way Marya Morevna approaches that situation. Spotting Death in the first place, she flags him down, like a sensible person.

Marya: Death? Hey, how’re you?

Death: Pretty good, pretty good. Did you know you can adopt flamingos? Funny running into you, though. I thought we had a thing in Kankakee tomorrow.

Marya: Really? Wow, didn’t know. I better go to Kankakee to see how that goes for me. It’d be really cool of you to not reap my soul, but I guess I’ll understand if you do.

So you get a bit annoyed with her at times. Baba Yaga, on the other hand, kicks death in the knees and takes his ADOPT certificate (suitable for framing!) and plush flamingo just to make him cry before she goes to Peoria instead, to draw out my increasingly tortured metaphor. Thus my fangirl adoration. She even tells the language of the story to bugger off. Every character has a voice, but it’s always beautiful and flowing and half poetry. Baba Yaga’s dialogue can be a bit of a record screech, but you can’t object. Because she’s Baba Yaga. And she’ll eat you.

When she’s not around, I’m still a hell of a sucker for the prose style. Generally I have four major categories for a book to fulfill, and writing is one of them. Deathless gets one very shiny star for that. The words are thick and rolling and complex and awesome. Next comes characters, and with the weird, devilish cast, that’s a star, too. The story laughs in the face of your outdated,  bourgeoisie plot diagrams, but it’s tight and well paced and excellent. And the worlds, of which there are many, are built with a loving hand. All four stars for Deathless!

Lots and lots of sex and violence, as a warning to the sensitive souls. None of it’s gratuitous, but it does go on a while. I will say Valente does a better job than most people making me care about the characters’ hearts and loins, but if you’re stubborn about getting invested in a bunch of romance (like me), you’ll find plenty to keep you interested. Like the violence! Some of it is magical, abstract, distant violence, and some of it is real and human and wrapped up tight in history and will make you wince and cry. Any corrosion to your soul as you experience Deathless is, well, completely intentional, I’m pretty sure.

And I’m not sure where this fits in, so I’ll just go ahead and say, Deathless goes remarkably well with “It’s a Beautiful Day,” the album, but It’s a Beautiful Day, the band. Try it out.

If you’re accustomed to Valente it’s a bit of a departure, I suppose, in that it’s more linear and concrete than her usual meandering dreamscapes, but you’ll definitely recognize her voice and what makes her awesome whether you last picked up Palimpsest or  The Grass-Cutting Sword. It’s got a little less of the monster action that’s usually my favorite part, but there are still a lot of fantastical creatures, just not quite so many as usual. And I’ll probably be coming right back to this subject, as something… interesting came in the mail today. With a shiny red cover and a Wyvern and an absurd title.

Anyway.

Deathless. It’s a story about a story about a story. It’s a history lesson and it’s the human condition all over again. And, most importantly, it’s Marya Morevna’s story, and you oughtn’t trifle with Marya Morevna.

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