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Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente
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Mar 24, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: favorites
Read in August, 2011

How much of a fairy tale can Stalinist Russia be? Deathless, written by the Hugo Award-winning novelist Catherynne M. Valente, takes inspiration from the Russian fairy tale Koschei the Deathless and sets it against the backdrop of Soviet Russia. The original story centers around a young king named Ivan who repeatedly abducts Tsar Koschei's wife, Marya Morevna. As frivolous as that may sound, the novel has instead cast Marya Morevna as the protagonist, and turned her into a daughter of Saint Petersburg in the olden days preceding the revolution.
The novel begins with Marya Morevna as a six-year-old who dreams of marrying a handsome man who arrives at her doorstep to ask her mother for her hand, just as her three older, prettier sisters have done. However, by the time she is fifteen years of age, the Russian Revolution has already set in, converting Saint Petersburg into Petrograd, morphing her home into a communal residence of twelve families, slashing away traces of hopes for a fairy tale that Marya wishes to live. Eventually, at long last, her suitor appears at her door: his name is Koschei Bessmertny, and he drives her away in his sleek black automobile and entraps her in his kingdom. His true identity is Koschei the Deathless, the immortal Tsar of Life. Immortality and eternity is not a realm of happiness; it is a dark void of coldness and isolation, where even Koschei is caught up in the Russian Civil War, upon his throne of bones in the world where no mere mortal can glimpse upon him.
Before Marya can be accepted as Koschei's wife, she is the hostage of Baba Yaga, the Russian variation of the Western witch, who rides a mortar and delights in devouring maidens boiled in her soup pot. Marya has to prove herself where past maidens have failed before her, to accomplish three tasks that will prove herself worthy for the title of Tsaritsa of Life, Koschei's queen. But even after Marya successfully marries Koschei, she loses her grasp on her former self, of the normal girl she once was, before she could witness Koschei's world. She becomes ensnared in the war that her husband is participating in. That is when Ivan, a naive soldier from Petrograd, enters the story, into Marya's jaded life. He represents the existence she had lost, the life she could have had, if she had been any mortal girl blind to the universe of magic. She follows him back to her birth town. But in the very end, she loses both of her precious men, trapping herself upon the delicate thread of reality and fantasy, of lost lives and rebirth, of childhood dreams and adult fatigue.
This is Russian folklore woven into a tapestry stitched with delicate threads of history. Though it is clearly set during one of the most tumultuous eras of Russian history, do not expect to hear of the Romanov family, of the Red or White Army, or even of Stalin. While they are implied, the novel focuses on a retelling of the Russian fairy tale, heavily modified to flesh out the characters and set a fantasy world against a backdrop of the last century. A little girl's dream of marrying Prince Charming takes a pernicious turn, and infidelity and reality mar the ideals of a protagonist maiden. Throughout the novel, Valente's prose shines. Her words are lush, playing upon the cadence of fairy tales, but composed with the weighty grief of sagacity. It is a tale for the child and adult meshed within readers.
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Quotes Jo Liked

Catherynne M. Valente
“You will always fall in love, and it will always be like having your throat cut, just that fast.”
Catherynne M. Valente, Deathless

Catherynne M. Valente
“That's how you get deathless, volchitsa. Walk the same tale over and over, until you wear a groove in the world, until even if you vanished, the tale would keep turning, keep playing, like a phonograph, and you'd have to get up again, even with a bullet through your eye, to play your part and say your lines.”
Catherynne M. Valente, Deathless

Catherynne M. Valente
“Oh, I will be cruel to you, Marya Morevna. It will stop your breath, how cruel I can be. But you understand, don’t you? You are clever enough. I am a demanding creature. I am selfish and cruel and extremely unreasonable. But I am your servant. When you starve I will feed you; when you are sick I will tend you. I crawl at your feet; for before your love, your kisses, I am debased. For you alone I will be weak.”
Catherynne M. Valente, Deathless

Catherynne M. Valente
“Lebedeva’s eyes shone. “Masha, listen to me. Cosmetics are an extension of the will. Why do you think all men paint themselves when they go to fight? When I paint my eyes to match my soup, it is not because I have nothing better to do than worry over trifles. It says, I belong here, and you will not deny me. When I streak my lips red as foxgloves, I say, Come here, male. I am your mate, and you will not deny me. When I pinch my cheeks and dust them with mother-of-pearl, I say, Death, keep off, I am your enemy, and you will not deny me. I say these things, and the world listens, Masha. Because my magic is as strong as an arm. I am never denied.”
Catherynne M. Valente, Deathless


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