by Catherynne M. Valente
Tor Books (2011)
Last year I had the chance to read Ekaterina Sedia's The Secret History of Moscow, which I found to be a very satisfying traipse through Russian folklore. So I thought I good second visit would be through Catherynne Valente's Deathless.
The novel is a re-imagining of the fairytale about Koschei the Deathless, the Tsar of Life; and Marya Morevna, a peasant girl whisked away by Koschei to become his bride. It's set against a backdrop of the early twentieth century in Russia, as the Communist oppression is juxtaposed against the fantastical landscape of Marya's new kingdom with the Tsar of Life. A goulash of whimsical and fearsome characters adorn this book, as the story of Marya's very unfairytale romance to Koschei is played out in a fairytale setting.
Valente's storytelling offers up a very melodic style as the characters are introduced and the plot unfolds. The language used and the rhythmic way it is laid out in key spots give the sense you're being read a bedtime story of the most hauntingly tragic kind.
For someone unfamiliar with the Koschei fairytale, I really felt like a foreigner reading this book. I suspect a cursory glance at the source material would have offered me an even more rewarding experience, but at least the story, taken at face value, is enjoyable enough despite being ignorant to the winks and nods along the way. And between Deathless and The Secret History of Moscow, I get the feeling there is a wellspring of Russian folklore I'm missing out on.
I've had the good fortune to read some of Valente's short fiction over the last year or so, and I was quite looking forward to a chance to read one of her novels. Now that I have, I am pretty sure I will be actively seeking out her work in the future whenever the chance arises. If you're a fan of authors with a deft hand at the fantastic, hers is a name to look for.