Deathless Hardcover – Mar 10 2011
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“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.See all Product Description
Top Customer Reviews
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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
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"
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.
I'm normally very skeptical of "re-tellings" and "adaptations" of folklore, especially when done by people who don't have deep roots in the tradition. (Yes, "Valente" is not a Russian name.) There are so many Evangeline Waltons, Lloyd Alexanders, and Marion Zimmer Bradleys out there who have a tin ear and don't get it, or (worse) have an ideological axe to grind, and don't care what damage they do to the received tradition. Their works may be entertaining on their own terms, but they damage the folk tradition instead of enriching it.
This book is not like theirs.
Catherynne Valente's reworking of the story of Marya Morevna, Prince Ivan, and Koschei the Deathless conquered me completely. She sets her story in the context of the Russian Revolution,Stalinism, and the Second World War--besides Koschei, Marya, Baba Yaga and the rest, there are very lightly drawn appearances by Lenin, Stalin, Tsar Nicholas and his family, Rasputin, Kerensky, and the Wehrnacht, among many others, and the book ends in the siege of Leningrad.
The brilliance of the book is that all this modern relevance detracts not at all from the fairy-tale atmosphere, but pulls you right into it, and eventually rips your heart right out of your chest. (There's a faint 50-Shades whiff at the beginning, but it's part of the subtlety of the love/power relationship between Marya and Koschei, and it recedes from view very quickly as Marya's character develops.)
If you don't mind losing at least one night's sleep reading under the covers, I can't recommend this book enough.
Koschei, Tsar of Life, engages in his eternal battle with his brother Viy, the Tsar of Death -- but the world, unarguably, is changing, and the war that was never going well is even less optimistic in these times. Human events allow Viy to claim more and more quickly than he ever has before -- or does Viy's success reflect itself in the mortal world and spur those catastrophes? The lines between Koschei's country, Viy's, and ours are blurry to begin with, and the smudges defining their boundaries get all the more smeared as the years progress.
The central story of Deathless is that of Marya Morevna, a heroine too aware of her role. ... Marya finds herself seduced by Koschei, spirited away to his country, which is both of our world and beyond it, in the way of fairy tales. Though he cherishes and spoils her, and though she makes friends in this land and takes to its customs, she must still pass trials before she can become his bride in truth. The story is not as simple for her as for other heroines, though, particularly as she learns how many of those heroines there have been in Koschei's past, and what ends they came to.
... As with the Orphan's Tales duology, Deathless lets you know that Valente is a writer absolutely steeped in mythology of all kinds. She must have been marinating herself in it for years, and the investment has paid off remarkably. ... I highly recommend this book to any fans of folklore and fairy tales, particularly if you're someone who enjoys modern, magical-realism twists on them, or else the grittier, less forgiving, less redemptive versions of the stories. Valente's writing voice is exquisite -- dark and lyrical, utterly poetic yet entirely unflinching from the harsh and the ugly, with a cadence familiar yet enchantingly new. Marya's twisted, torquing path is one I'm eager to tread again.