Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente is one of the hardest books I have read. It is magical and terrifying like all good fairy tales are, but I also had to fight to find my footing with every sentence. As soon as I had a grasp of Valente’s tale, it would change so sharply that I lost my confidence several times over. It was a challenging read, and it pushed me as a reader, but I loved the pieces I was able to pick up.
Marya Morevna sits at the window at her home in Leningrad and watches three birds sitting on a branch. Each bird falls to the earth, turns into a handsome man, and approaches the house. Each man comes to the door and takes away one of Marya’s older sisters to become their wife. The years pass and Marya grows older, but no birds come asking for her hand. Marya is desperate to catch more glimpses of the magical world and dreams of becoming a wife until she learns who has laid claim to her. One day, Koschei the Deathless will appear at her door and Marya will get everything she did, and didn’t, ask for.
Deathless takes place during the Russian revolution, and the country’s violent and difficult transformation pushes at the seams of Marya’s magical world. As she is whisked away to become Koschei’s wife, Marya’s tale becomes trapped between two parallel worlds. Her home country fractures under the civil war, and Koschei the Deathless is in a never-ending war against his brother who rules over the realm of the dead. The two worlds tend to bleed into one another, creating a trippy tale where the lines of Marya’s life are never clearly drawn. There is death, destruction, and cruelty in both places that broke me. But there were also displays of a love so strong it healed wounds and transcended boundaries.
From what I have read of Koschei the Deathless’ original folklore, he is an immortal god that captures a warrior princess named Marya, who is later rescued by her husband Ivon. I was shocked to learn this because the original Marya sounds nothing like the clever, cold girl that Valente portrays in her book. Marya is both cruel and kind, old and young, tired yet full of life. She is at odds with herself as much as the two worlds she sits in. Marya is full of agency and she is the one making all the moves. Koschei and Ivon both have their typical roles to play in this story, but Marya is the wild card that shakes up the cadence and I love her for it. From a naive girl to a demanding woman, Marya bends the tale and her husband to her will.
One of the most painful experiences of the book is its portrayal of what is before and what comes after. There is a theme of irrevocable change, starting with the Marya who was blissfully unaware of magic and the person she became after it was discovered. This is but a light hors d’oeuvre before the tale escalates to remind the reader that no one can remain the same person through war or marriage. Although the picture is not so perfect in the beginning, by the end there is a despairing sadness that haunts me. The story at this point was unsettling and cruel at times, but it was only painful because it reflected the truth of time moving forward and changing all things.
Deathless challenged me in more ways than I can count. I feel as if so much of Valente’s brilliance and intoxicating prose went right over my head. However, it is a story that will sit with me for a long time, and I hope to discover new things along the way.
Rating: Deathless – 8.0/10