Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente
Child of the revolution, maiden of myth, bride of darkness A handsome young man arrives in St Petersburg at the house of Marya Morevna. He is Koschei, the Tsar of Life, and he is Marya’s fate. Koschei leads Marya to his kingdom, where she becomes a warrior in his tireless battle against his own brother, the Tsar of Death. Years pass. Battle-hardened, scarred by love, and longing for respite, Marya returns to St Petersburg – only to discover a place as pitiful as the land she has just fled: a starveling city, haunted by death.
If you’re a follower of my blog and you’ve read my review of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making then you know how much I fell for Valente’s wonderful prose. When I was sent an early review copy of Deathless, Valente’s new adult novel based on a Russian folktale I literally couldn’t wait to see how it would compare.
The first thing that will immediately strike any reader of The Girl Who Circumnavigated….is that this book was very much written for an entirely different audience; those who can appreciate literary fiction. Valente’s prose is perhaps even more beautiful and stunning here, and the prologue is perhaps one of the best pieces of literature I have ever had the pleasure of reading as it begins;
“Woodsmoke hung heavy and golden on the shorn wheat, the earth bristling like an old bald woman. The apple trees had long ago been stripped for kindling; the cherry roots long since dug up and boiled into meal. The sky sagged cold and wan, coughing spatters of phlegmatic sunlight onto the grey and empty farms.”
I could literally type out the entire first page and you would not find a single word that has not been lovingly thought over and put in its rightful place. I find myself wanting to delve into Valente’s imagination to discover where all her wonderful ideas and beautiful prose comes from.
However, as much as I adore her writing, I cannot say Deathless is an easy read. It is a hard read, one where the reader has to constantly work to wrap their head around Valente’s words and make sense of them. It is the sort of book you have to be in the mood for; one where you can sit down and prepare your mind for the onslaught of mythical Russian creatures you’ll probably never have heard of, for the multiple worlds and characters that force themselves upon you. It is a lot to take in.
I knew nothing of the Russian folktale from which Valente drew her inspiration named Marya Morevna and Koschei the Deathless. I’m still undecided on whether it would have helped if I had known of it or not, in one way it may have helped make sense of things a little more, but on the other, from what I’ve read Valente’s story seems quite different. I think what would have helped, is a little background knowledge in general Russian folklore itself. Valente refers a lot to mythical Russian creatures I’d never heard of, and doesn’t give you much of a description to help you along. Perhaps a listing in the beginning or the end of the book of each creature would have helped a little, but I got along reasonably okay without.
I think the problem with this novel is that with it being based on a folktale, Valente has padded the tale out as much as possible to make into a full-length novel. I’m not saying that she has created needless scenes and used plot devices to fill out the story, but rather that I feel it was a tad too long. With Valente’s prose being so demanding with your attention, it begins to take its toll and I couldn’t help but think it should have all come to an end a little sooner than it did. Nevertheless, I think Valente has done a brilliant job in transforming a small little-known tale into a full-grown novel.
I haven’t dwelled too much on the plot here as not only is the blurb above, but also there is so much that goes on within this novel that I feel I would not do it justice, and I think the magic is there for you to discover for yourself. I really struggled with the rating of this novel, as on the one hand I adored Valente’s prose, as you can already tell, and I am left in awe of her imagination once again, but on the other hand I did find it at times, a strenuous read that I struggled to be in the mood for at times, and which ultimately meant it took me a lot longer to read than would usually be the case. If I could rate it based on Valente’s talent alone, it would undoubtedly be a 5 star rating. It’s easy to get caught up in the magic of it all whilst writing this review, but I know when looking back, realistically the style of the novel deterred me from enjoying it as much as I wanted to but I actually feel that if I were to read it a second time, after becoming more familiar with some of the Russian folklore within, I would perhaps get a lot more enjoyment out of it and be able to appreciate it more.
Deathless is out now, published by Corsair. A massive thank you goes to the publisher for providing me with an early copy for review.