Bryan Alexander's Reviews > Deathless

Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente
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's review
Apr 20, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: fantasy, russia, romance
Read from March 30 to April 08, 2016

Deathless is a delight to savor. The novel retells some Russian mythology (pre- and post-Christianity), placing the stories during the Russian Revolution and WWII. Which is a fine premise.

It's a treat to immerse oneself in an usual fantasy setting, with the titular Koschei, cranky house spirits (domovoi, who end up organized into a committee for the revolution), Baba Yaga (sorry: Chairman Yaga), bogatyrs (here, fairly useless heroes), a leshy (forest/earth creature), and a rusalka. I liked the modern twist on Koschei's wives (munitions workers, 106ff) and the casting of a giant war between Tsars of Life and Death.

Valente relishes this remix, starting from using fairy tale language and structures. For example, many events come in threes, and it's common for powerful characters to challenge less powerful ones to heroic and impossible yet fantastic quests (and characters eventually realize this at a meta level). We get references to other fantasies as well, like a body-size-changing Alice in Wonderland move (32-3).

When I mentioned that Deathless it's because of its superb language. There are so many nice passages and descriptions:
"Sip your vodka, and then bite one of the peppers - see how the vinegar and the vodka mix on your tongue? This is a very marvelous thing. A winter thing, when everything is pickled and preserved under glass. You can taste summer in this mixture, summer boiled down and soaked in brine, mummified, packed with spices to be born again on this table, in this place, in this snow." (64)
Suddenly she stood up with a swiftness no young woman could match. She towered, the ceiling forced her to bend at the waist, but beneath it her back was straight, without a hunch. (30)
The bullet collides with the firebird like a child leaping up into her papa's arms when he comes home after a long journey. The bird stumbles backwards against the birches, trapped by their trunks. He lifts up his eyes to the sky and Marya clutches her belly; but there are tears floating like naphtha in the firebird's eyes, there is a song in his mouth like blood, ; and the sound hurts her, pulls at her, plucks the bones of her ribs like gusli strings. (306)

This is also a very female-centric novel. The point of view character for almost every page is our heroine, who grows into power and becomes quite a force. Traditional women's crafts and items (weaving, hairbrushes, etc) are powerful objects. There's a powerful scene about the value of makeup for women (143). Most of the female characters are warm, supportive, knowledgeable, well spoken. Motherhood and sisterhood is powerful; fatherhood and male siblings barely exist. Males are either dangerous, stupid, or very weak.
As a rusalka explains her career choice (being a nurse),
I want my daughter to be in the Young Pioneers, and grow up to be something important, like a writer or immunologist, to grow up not knowing what a rusalka is, because then I will know her world does not in any way resemble one in which farmers tell their sons how bad beautiful women are. (266)

Sex is also interesting in the novel. It starts off as very violent (a strong BDSM theme runs throughout), as Koschei dominates and kidnaps Marya, edging over into rape. The story gradually reverses, becoming very female dominant, as our heroine becomes more autonomous, more powerful:
Ivan clapped his hand to the back of her neck, moving under her, arching his back to press closer. He moaned under her, his coin-colored lashes so long, like a girl's. (216)
[Marya to Ivan:]Do you think I came through the living and dead world to be a Party mistress? I am your loyalty, I am your commissar.
And he yielded to her, as always. (247)
The finale is ultimately about Marya choosing between realizing different desires of her own, both powerless ((view spoiler)).

At a personal level I enjoyed much of the book, since my family is Russian (mother an immigrant, and named Marya!) and I have a lifelong obsession with that nation's culture. I chuckled through the dark humor, appreciated the specific foods and drink, the details of birches.

However, to my surprise I found myself stalling out halfway through the novel. I had to remind myself to keep going. Why was this? It may be that as a male heteronormative reader I was less than enthused about the romance plot, which took over the narrative energies. I appreciated the twist on myth, but was not fully engaged.

At least one other reader found the plot wavering, becoming formulaic and ultimately unconvincing. This makes sense to me, as I wasn't sure of the final cosmic settling of accounts, and found the romance resolution to be multiple, repetitive, and drained of emotional power.

It may also be that I was hoping for a larger involvement with Russian history, but that fell away as the story dwelled in a fantasy world. And when it returned to our world there was only a glancing connection to Russian/Soviet events, beyond some good chapters on the siege of Leningrad. Indeed, a few chapters about a fairy tale village populated by thinly disguised versions of Lenin, Stalin, Nicholas II (tsar), Alexandra (tsarina), Trotsky, and Rasputin was oddly affectless, far less interesting than this sentence might suggest, and ultimately fairly pointless (291ff). Ivan works for the Cheka, but this is scarcely touched on (245).

Speaking of the Romanovs, there's an oddly conservative politics quietly advanced in Deathless. Our heroine comes from a wealthy family, and we are encouraged (I think) to sympathize with their fall into communal living. The reasons for the Revolution are unaddressed, beyond it standing in for modernity. The Soviets are clearly evil, a bad police state, insofar as this subject actually appears after the first few chapters. There isn't much sympathy for Russians who would overthrow the tsar. There's a lot of energy devoted to the passing of an old, sweet order, which is that of fantasy, pretty much. So Deathless ends up somewhere between Neil Gaiman's slam against the French Revolution in Sandman ("Thermidor") and the Disney Anastasia movie: not a good place.

Who should read this? Fans of contemporary fantasy. Lovers of updated and remixed fairy tales. People looking for lush, sexualized romances. Lovers of Russia.
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Comments (showing 1-10 of 10) (10 new)

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Jenny (Reading Envy) I got through this one when I usually love Valente. I don't think there is enough to get me to read whatever book #2 will be.

Bryan Alexander Jenny (Reading Envy) wrote: "I got through this one when I usually love Valente. I don't think there is enough to get me to read whatever book #2 will be."
What stalled out for you?

message 3: by Lis (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lis It's been a while since I read this, and I need to reread it to see how much I agree or disagree with you. But from what I remember, the problem was less the conservativism of Ye Olde Garde and why you wouldn't want to overthrow the Tsar and more the inexorable collision of the fairy-tale world and the real one. I suspect that there would be a similar note of sadness if Marya and Ivan holed up in - say - Woodstock or Los Alamos (although one would hope with less starvation). Or Silicon Valley, or the moon - anywhere that wasn't Once-Upon-A-Slavic-Time. It's what unsettled me about the gun fairy - within the world, it feels as natural as it can be - as natural as the rusalka who wants an immunologist for a daughter, and just as unnatural.

The best way I can explain my response is that this is a book where the "more things in heaven and earth, Horatio," find out that there are more things in THEIR heaven and earth than fit into the fairy-tale realm. Commissar Yaga makes no more sense than Yu Baba from Spirited Away - and no less. It's not just that the boundaries weren't where you thought they were - it's that what you thought were boundaries weren't.

That's how it goes for me with the romance, in the end. Leaving BDSM and heteronormativity aside, it's about a relationship between...mostly...two people who find that it holds a lot more than romance. Koschei's monologue near the beginning about how Marya will learn to relish the taste of bitterness is the prime example. He thinks he knows what he's getting into, that she doesn't, and that he can open her eyes to oh whatever. Here we're back to the fairy tale, because Marya puts him in the same position - and at the end it's not clear who is in whose power, and I put down the book feeling like as far as I'd gone in this world there were infinite distances further that I could have gone, and that they would go. (The difference between Koschei's usual Vasilissas, who I knew as a child from "Vasilissa the Beautiful," my first Slavic fairy tale, and Marya, is meant to be shocking to all involved, including both Marya AND Koschei.)

I'm surprised you call it romance, because for me, that suggests that it has a starting point and an ending point. For me it's the story of a marriage - both the marriage of Koschei and Marya and of the fairy-tale world and the modern. It's what happens after the honeymoon is over and AFTER ever after. To quote Madeleine L'Engle, it's a two-part invention.

Now you're going to make me go back and reread and write some whole other rhapsody about why I'm mistaken, I can see.

That's what I enjoyed about the

Bryan Alexander Lis, many thanks for these reflections.

History: i take your point, but if it took place in Silicon Valley I'm the kind of reader who would see that as meaningful, and look for how it engages with gentrification, startup culture, and the rest of the Bay Area. It's a particular real world, one the book takes pains to set up.

As a counterfactual, imagine the novel taking place in the 18th century, as parts of Russia start engaging with the enlightenment (the real bad guy in Gaiman's take on the French Revolution). Or in the next century, when revolution and modernity start gnawing on semifeudal Russia. There are powerful implications for those settings.

Yes, there are other aspects to this fantastic historical fiction than historicity. There's surrealism, which I think you're addressing, and which is precisely a contemporary creation. There's certainly comedy.

Romance... well, there's a lot of that in there, especially the awesome starting point. And it's about several wooings, if you will: Koschei seizing Marya; Marya convincing K. to marry her; whatever the final quarter of the book is. I can see differentiating marriage as a story form.

(I think your last line got cut off)

message 5: by Lis (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lis Nah, my last line was me forgetting I'd been typing in an earlier paragraph. You make a good point about specific historicity. I've got a sometimes useful and sometimes profoundly unuseful talent for taking historical novels as a different kind of speculative fiction. (Don't ask me about The Master and Margarita - it will only annoy you, I think.) So my approach is much more Soviet(ism? is it an ism?)-as-modern-myth rather than Soviet-as-historical-reality. I'm exposing both ignorance and perverse perspective here, I think. But I do think, having read more of Valente's work with myth and fairy tale, that she's of the more mythic bent - which if I remember is one of the things that let you down about the novel, right?

I stand by marriage rather than romance, despite all that backpedaling above. I'd mention Gone Girl as an example, except having not read it I shouldn't opine. But yes, there's a long if quiet history of marriage the genre as opposed to romance the genre - Middlemarch is the most imposing but not the only example. And I'd make an argument for Les Liaisons Dangereuses but I've rambled with debatable coherence long enough. :)

Bryan Alexander Lis wrote: "Nah, my last line was me forgetting I'd been typing in an earlier paragraph. You make a good point about specific historicity. I've got a sometimes useful and sometimes profoundly unuseful talent f..."

Myth: I very much like the idea of the Soviet era as a source of myth. Deathless doesn't get there, but perhaps that's a field to come. Maybe it'll emerge from the darker moments of our century, which sometimes drive some people to revisit the huge communist states of the 20th. For example, ostalgie.

Sometimes I fear people turns to myth to avoid history and politics.

Marriage: heh, I haven't read Gone Girl either, nor seen the movie, despite admiring Fincher.
Does a marriage story have to begin after the wedding?

message 7: by Lis (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lis Well, Middlemarch doesn't. But I do think it has to be about the marriage rather than what you charmingly call "wooing."

Of course people turn to myth to avoid history and politics. Cf. CNN, Trump, etc. etc. etc. etc. I am at least honest about my avoidance of history and politics via myth. Meanwhile, Joseph Campbell is weeping in the collective unconscious.

The last halves of Dorothy Dunnett's two historical fiction series are marriage books par excellence. As is Busman's Honeymoon by Dorothy Sayers - actually, that's one of the best ones I can think of. And you can't really leave out Macbeth.

Bryan Alexander One can never leave out Macbeth, indeed.

Agreed about CNN as myth. Have you seen their Fear and Greed Index? Or my wrathful blog posts?

I need to rethink marriage plots as soon as I finish this week's conference on scholarly communication.

message 9: by Lis (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lis No to both questions, but I'm always up for some angry blog posts. And we can resume procrastinatory discussions once we've got some time to procrastinate again. Good luck with the conference!

Bryan Alexander Read in reverse order: .

Conference was *fascinating*. Hope to blog it soon. Scholcomm is such a deep, resistant problem field.

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