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Deathless [Hardcover]

Catherynne M. Valente
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

March 10 2011

Koschei the Deathless is to Russian folklore what devils or wicked witches are to European culture: a menacing, evil figure; the villain of countless stories which have been passed on through story and text for generations. But Koschei has never before been seen through the eyes of Catherynne Valente, whose modernized and transformed take on the legend brings the action to modern times, spanning many of the great developments of Russian history in the twentieth century.

Deathless, however, is no dry, historical tome: it lights up like fire as the young Marya Morevna transforms from a clever child of the revolution, 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. All told, Deathless is a collision of magical history and actual history, of revolution and mythology, of love and death, which will bring Russian myth back to life in a stunning new incarnation.


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Review

"Romantic and blood-streaked, and infused with magic so real you can feel it on your fingertips—Deathless is beautiful." —Cory Doctorow

 

“Stories, unlike people, don't stay dead forever, or not always. They can live again—but only under very special circumstances. They must be revived by the miraculous touch of a very rare class of being, a kind of multi-classed genius/scholar/saint, who can restore them to life. Catherynne Valente is such a being.” —Lev Grossman on Ventriloquism

 

“Valente just knocks me flat with her use of language: rich, cool, opiated language, language for stories of strange love and hallucinated cities of the mind.” —Warren Ellis on Palimpsest

 

“Valente’s lyrical prose and masterful storytelling brings to life a fabulous world, and solidifies Valente’s place at the forefront of imaginative storytelling.” —Library Journal, starred review, on The Orphan’s Tales

 

“Lyrical, witchy... mixes feminist grit with pixie dust.” —Entertainment Weekly

 

“Catherynne M. Valente’s first three novels earned her a reputation as a bold, skillful writer. Her latest, The Orphan’s Tales, reaffirms that early acclaim... These are fairy tales that bite and bleed. Every moment of lyricism is countered by one of clear-eyed honesty, and sometimes the moments combine...Now we wait for Valente to bend her knee again and make more myths.” —Washington Post

“The earlier novels and poetry collections have established her as a distinctive presence in contemporary fantasy’s landscape, but The Orphan’s Tales still might make her seem like a spontaneous mountain.” —Bookslut

About the Author

CATHERYNNE M. VALENTE's first major release, The Orphan's Tales, was released in the fall of 2006 when Cat was twenty-seven. Volume I, In the Night Garden, went on to win the James Tiptree Jr. Award and was nominated for the World Fantasy Award. The series as a whole won the Mythopoeic Award for adult literature in 2008. Her most recent novel, Palimpsest, has been nominated for the Hugo Award and is a Locust Award finalist. She currently lives on a small island off the coast of Maine with her partner, two dogs, and one cat.


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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Dark and beautiful and wondrous July 25 2011
Format:Hardcover
Valente pulls off two difficult balancing feats -- retelling classic Russian folk tales while letting them be informed by the history of the Soviet Union from the Revolution to just after the Great Patriotic War; as well as writing a fairy story where the characters (at least the human ones) grow and change. (Neil Gaiman pulled this off as well in _Stardust_ -- which is probably the highest praise I can give.)

The story taps into a dark and powerful vein of pessimistic fantasy. The writing is brilliant -- some of it is in folk tale cadence with all its repetitions and parallels, and the psychological treatment of the characters works -- the powerful beings (Koschei the Deathless, the Baba Yaga, and others) are note-perfect and terrifying, and Marya Morevna, our heroine, grows up and learns and changes, marries and starves (during the siege of Leningrad) and kills. Somehow the novel stretches to accommodate both Politburo-bureaucratese and jam-packed, imagistic flights of fantasy.

I'll be sure to read more by Valente in the future.
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Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars  46 reviews
58 of 62 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A catalog of Russian folk lore stitched into a novel May 29 2011
By Tim Westover - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I thought that I would be an ideal reader for Catherynne Valente's Deathless, her 2011 work of magical realism and Russian folklore. I'm familiar with most of the folk tales and practices on which her work is based. I've taken courses on Russian literature and history and toured both Moscow and St. Petersburg extensively. I speak enough Russian to understand the references (not quite puns) in the character and geographic names. But all of this, I've found, actually makes me less than an ideal reader for Deathless -- my dilettantish dabbling into various parts of Russian culture leaves me equipped with neither of the frameworks I could use to appreciate the novel.

If I weren't familiar with the source material, I would be more awed by the strangeness of Valente's work and the striking images she presents -- a world of eggs, feathers, huts with chicken legs, galloping pestles, magical villages, and house spirits. Valente casts these elements into beautiful English prose, but they are not her inventions. The banya ritual, with its bizarre lashing by birch branches, is a beloved Russian pastime, typically enjoyed with alcohol and picked victuals. Baba Yaga, Koschei the Deathless, firebirds and mustard plasters (and even the main character, Marya Morevna) are all part of the Russian folk tradition. And if I had absorbed the source material through a lifetime of culture, rather than a few book and college courses and weeks abroad, I could better appreciate Valente's inversions, re-castings, and transformations. Deathless is a catalog of Russian folk lore stitched into a novel.

The overall plot is impelled by the demands of the fairy tale, not the motivations of the characters, inevitability without agency. Goldilocks has to eat the three bears' porridge, else she wouldn't be Goldilocks -- she has no choice in the matter. Similarly, Marya Morevna has no choice in her interactions with Koschei the Deathless. They are preordained by centuries of Russian tradition. "Why" or "How" are not a question one can ask of fairy tales, and they don't figure into Valente's novel, either. It's better to let the striking images and strong, direct language exist as points and not attempt to resolve them into a coherent outline of a plot.

The real world / Soviet elements of the story aren't as well fleshed-out as I'd hoped. This is a shame, because they are among the more intriguing ideas. What would Baba Yaga or the Firebird have done at the Siege of Leningrad? The domovoi (house spirits) organizing themselves into soviets and committees is brilliant (they have been too long oppressed by the bourgeois inhabitants), and I'm sorry that this didn't play a larger role.

Valente's narrative voice is lush, ornate, packed with adjectives and descriptors, and borrows the cadence of the fairy tale. This is usually powerful, but in certain moods and quantities feels oppressive. The voices of her characters are no different. Characters speak in lush, large, sweeping sentences, proverbially, poetically and axiomatically. This fits their role as archetypes and ideals, not as people. There are frequent jumps (temporal and thematic) between sections and between sentences, so that at times, the novel feels non-sequitur. It is cleverer than the reader; it is wiser. It expects the reader to keep up, and I couldn't always meet the challenge.

Deathless, to me, succeeds as a series of images and fails as a story. It has more in common with the snippets of Akhmatova poetry found throughout: best understood as fragments of some much greater whole.
52 of 57 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death April 3 2011
By Anastasia - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is a haunting, gorgeous tale about love - for your lover, your friends, your home - and about death, because those two go together so well. A young girl is kidnapped by a dark dashing stranger, the man of her dreams, and taken to a land where houses have walls of skin and hair, where she hunts firebirds and befriends fairytale creatures. Her lover is Deathless, the Tsar of Life - and being the Tsar of Life, it is so that he must battle death at every turn, and Maria Morevna is drawn into his war. Tired of war and death, torn between her humanity and her new magic, she tries to go home to Leningrad (St. Petersburg), but death follows her there as well.

The story isn't depressing, far from it. This book is darkly humorous, and wrenchingly beautiful. (I cry every time I reread Chapter 23 (p 271-284)) It is bitter sweet, and hopeful, and romantic, and epic - and very intimate at the same time. I loved the ending, both to the romance and the fairytale. Catherynne Valente did an amazing job here. She captures the feel, sound, texture of Russian folklore perfectly, and taps into the culture, history, politics and humor (think Bulgakov), the Russian "soul" exceptionally well. (I am Russian, for a disclaimer.) The prose is more restrained than in "Palimpsest," it's clear and simple, like a teardrop. Ah, there is so much to love here.

It's a complex, layered tale that will reward a careful reader; it will carry you off into a different land and make you live the fairytale and wish for the history to have a similar ending.

A note on some Russian translations of names (it was quite delightful to see the author play with them so cleverly, and definitely added a layer to the story):

Zvonok means "doorbell"
Chainik means "tea kettle"
Skorohodnaya (Road) means "quick-walking"
Kosti means "bones," while Kostya is a man's name (so Maria's name for Koschei is an affectionate pun)
Chernosvyat (Koschei's castle) means "Black blessed" or "black light"
Vintovnik (imp) means "rifle" (vintovka)
Lebed means "swan"
Ushanka is a winter hat with big floppy ears
Geroy (Ivan Geroyev) means "hero"
Ozero (Kseniya Yefremovna Ozernaya) means "lake" (and I recogized her from Valente's fanatastic short story "Urchins, While Swimming")
Yaichko (Yaichka village) means "egg"
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Poignant DEATHLESS is another must-read from Valente March 30 2011
By Elizabeth Hermens - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
First, I'm thrilled to say that once again, Valente has proven that my confidence in her work is utterly deserved. Second, I'm very happy with the new turn of style she's taken. The prose is undoubtedly hers, but the style is more straightforward than her previous novels Palimpsest and The Labyrinth, which I believe is better-suited to this particular tale. I wasn't sure I'd like the change, as an ardent fan of both her poetry and her lavish, transcendent prose, but world of Deathless is still full of arresting visuals and exquisitely tensioned relationships between characters.

Speaking of which, the story between Marya Morevna and Koschei is epic, for lack of a better term. It spans wars, and famines, and feasts, which are all things to behold in and of themselves, while still following the tragic tale that Koschei cannot keep himself from re-starting again and again. This time it is set in 1920's-1950's Russia, with the political philosophy of that time adding a particular note to the soup of the story, flavoring everything in sometimes very strong, sometimes very subtle ways. Valente did her research well, and I find myself very interested in reading a history of that period, so compelling a background did it form in this novel.

The relationships that stand upon it are no less compelling either. There are friendships, and marriages, and families upon families, but the focus is on the marriage of Marya and Koschei. Valente does not flinch, and shows both the sacrifices that one person will make for another, and the deep, wrenching wounds that one person will inflict on another. Love is a war in and of itself, difficult to start, and perhaps impossible to end. It is a pain that, as a reader, I came to love to hate to love. After the first reading, I'm left with several provocative statements about love, as well as life, that I can barely begin to wrap my head around, and which will spur me to re-read this novel several times, I've no doubt. This work is layered, and carefully, as Koschei hides his death, though not impossibly so, and the glimpse of the egg I have so far is enough for me to give it five stars.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Don't expect Fairyland Dec 26 2012
By C. Grant - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I adored Valente's first Fairyland book so bought this. What a different book. Do not expect something as magical as Fairyland ... expect something even better, but grim. I dislike grim stories, but I give it my top rating: I read it on Kindle then bought a hard copy just to have a physical presence of this amazing work in my house.

But, as I said, be prepared. Read it slowly. Be ready to look up words (English and Russian) and be ready to be immersed in another world that is both ultra-real and folklore, and SO beautifully written.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A well-written, demanding book April 4 2012
By E. Smiley - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Deathless is quite probably a brilliant book. But I cheated on it with three other books, where normally I'm a serial monogamist reader. This isn't a book that places much value on monogamy, so it would probably say (if it could talk) that different books serve different needs and that's perfectly okay. But I'm still of the opinion that cheating means there's something wrong with the relationship--which is why this book gets 4 stars rather than 5.

This book is a retelling of a Russian fairy tale, starring Marya Morevna and Koschei the Deathless. Having only a passing knowledge of Russian mythology, I mostly understood it, but it sent me running to Wikipedia a lot. The storyline covers much of the first half of the 20th century, and updates its mythology for the time period (communist house elves!). It is a good story, and the characters are vibrant and lifelike, Marya especially. My favorite quote from the book: "Marya supposed this was why no one asked after stolen fairy tale girls. What embarrassments they turn out to be. They grow tempers; they join the army; they need glasses. Who wants them?"

But while the characters' personalities are well-formed, sometimes their motivations and interactions seemed to be driven more by the fairy tales they come from than by the characters themselves. For instance, for any scene involving Marya's oldest sister, two more scenes must immediately follow in which the next two sisters, in order of age, act out the exact same sequence of events with minor variations. While this appears intentional--there's talk about how the characters repeat the same stories over and over again--it didn't really work for me. Valente takes an unusual approach to the idea of a fairy tale retelling, in that the characters know they're in a fairy tale retelling and act accordingly. That's a legitimate literary choice, but it's a bit hard to stomach if you believe in free will. Which I do.

At any rate, this is a well-written book with a lot of depth and it's all terribly clever--probably the more you already know about Russian history and mythology, the better you'll like it. Some chapters, like the one featuring the "village" of Yaichka, only make sense if you have at least minimal knowledge about Russia. For me, I think I admired Deathless more than I liked it, although I did at least like it. To those new to the author I'd recommend The Orphan's Tales first (a simply awesome duology!). But don't let my less-than-enthusiastic recommendation drive you away if you're interested: Deathless is an excellent book, if a demanding one. And the fantasy genre certainly needs more books breaking new ground, so if you're tired of reading the same thing over and over, this may be just what you need.
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