Book Review: Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente

8694389Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente

Published by Tor Books on March 29, 2011

Genres: Fantasy, Historical, Mythology, Adult Fiction

Pages: 352 Format: Hardcover Source: Library

5/5 Stars

Koschei the Deathless is to Russian folklore what devils or wicked witches are to European culture: a menacing, evil figure; the villain of countless stories which have been passed on through story and text for generations. But Koschei has never before been seen through the eyes of Catherynne Valente, whose modernized and transformed take on the legend brings the action to modern times, spanning many of the great developments of Russian history in the twentieth century.

Deathless, however, is no dry, historical tome: it lights up like fire as the young Marya Morevna transforms from a clever child of the revolution, to Koschei’s beautiful bride, to his eventual undoing. Along the way there are Stalinist house elves, magical quests, secrecy and bureaucracy, and games of lust and power. All told, Deathless is a collision of magical history and actual history, of revolution and mythology, of love and death, which will bring Russian myth back to life in a stunning new incarnation.

Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente in its simplest form is a story about life and death. She weaves layer upon layer through this novel making Marya Morevna and Koschei the Deathless’ tale fully explored and experienced. This book basically contains some of my greatest passions. The combination of history and mythology, magic and politics. Valente does not fail in this re-imagining. I have previously read her children’s books set in Fairyland and loved these adventures but Deathless is on a whole other level.

The story of Koschei the Deathless originates in Russian fairy tales and is referenced and explored in numerous avenues of popular culture. I love novels that flesh out myths and fairy tales especially when they intersect with history. This pairing of the myth with 20th century Russia fits exquisitely. The wars, the struggle to survive, it all meshes so well with the fantasy. The way this time in Russian history mirrored the battle between Life and Death flowed so freely.

Valente does a fabulous job in her descriptions of the historical aspects. Sharing a home with twelve other families and surviving the Russian winter during the war with virtually nothing were two examples that stand out. The constantly changing political system was depicted well with just the multiple changes of city and street names throughout the novel. As someone with such a deeply rooted love of the past, I truly appreciated the intricacy of it woven into this story.

Marya Morevna mirrors the reader’s experience of coming to understand the bigger world in both reality and Buyan. Her discovery of the birds and magic, her trip to Buyan, and living with Koschei all force the reader to figure out the overarching themes. I loved her character most for this connection, for her stubbornness and passion. Koschei the Deathless was such an intriguing character. Immortal yet so close to death in all ways. It was a refreshing depiction on what living forever would be like.

Favorite Quotes

  1. “Life consumes everything and Death never sleeps, and between them the world moves. Winter becomes spring. And every once in a while, they act out a strange, sad little pantomime, just to see if anyone has won yet. If the world still moves as it used to.”
  2. “Because I attend all weddings, Night,” purred Viy. “Death stands behind every bride, every groom. Even as they say their vows, the flowers are rotting in her crown, his teeth are rotting in his head.”
  3. “Marya hardly noticed anymore that the houses and halls had been patched together from the skins of many exotic and familiar beasts, their roofs thatched with long, waving hair, their eaves lined with golden braids. Fountains spurted hot, scarlet blood into glass pools, trickling pleasantly in the late afternoon light. A rich steam floated from their basins, and the occasional raven alighted to sip.”
  4. “But the shape of Comrade Bessmertny’s lips fascinated her and made her feel sick all at once — and that was what magic did to her. His lips shone bright and dark, soft and heart-shaped. She felt, looking at him, that she could not see him at all, but could see only the things that made him unlike a man, the lushness of his face and the slowness of his manner.”
  5. “We are not architects. We are Imps. We are goblins. If we could make a little room on the inside without budging the outside, we would not be worth our tails. After all, we have been making our little homes in the walls for centuries.”

Overall I absolutely loved Catherynne Valente’s Deathless. From start to finish it was a whirlwind. It was heavy, but poignant. An intense and perilous love story interwoven with the harsh realities of life and death. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone and hope it finds a home in many more hearts.

Have you read Deathless? Tell me what you thought.

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