Spellbound – A review of Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente

Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente

*Disclaimer: I spent hours crafting a blog post to capture just how fantastically unique this book is and then my laptop ate it. I blame Obama. Sadly, this post is just not as good as the original because I am hurrying to get it out between stops on my never-ending journey. My apologies to the author for an admittedly rushed and half-assed effort.

Long story short: The book is incredible. Go buy it and read it now! NOW!

Deathless by Catherynne ValenteJust remember that the only question in a house is who is to rule. The rest is only dancing around that, trying not to look it in the eye.

Why I chose this book

One of my favourite panels at the 2013 Worldcon was about crowdfunding. Howard Tayler was the best moderator I have ever seen at any conference on any subject and all of the panelists were engaging, funny, and provided helpful information. One panelist, however, really caught my interest, and I decided someday soon I would have to read Catherynne Valente’s work. This project was the perfect opportunity to dive in.

What it’s about

Deathless is a difficult book to categorize. Part myth, part folklore, part fairytale, part historical fiction, this is the story of Marya Morevna and her marriage to Koschei the Deathless. But it is so much more than that.

The cover blurb

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.

My thoughts

People sometimes ask me if I still enjoy movies after having worked on so many, especially knowing how all the nail-biting action sequences are actually performed. The answer is a qualified yes. If a movie is bad or even so-so, I start to notice the stunt pads beneath the double’s wardrobe and the missed sliding ninety that the editor cut away from to hide the mistake. If a movie is good, I enjoy it just like everyone else but at the end I can tell you about all the technical reasons “why” I enjoyed it. If a movie is brilliant, I am spellbound—the end.

As a writer, reading books is much the same. I pick the bad ones apart, I enjoy the good ones, and I am spellbound by the brilliant ones.

Deathless left me spellbound.

Great plot, characters, theme, language, yes, yes, etc. But there was something intangible—something brilliant—that grabbed me and held me from first page to last. Finishing this book was like waking from a dream.

By a long, thin window, a child in a pale blue dress and pale green slippers waited for a bird to marry her.

That is the introduction to Marya Morevna, the book’s protagonist. Are you curious? It gets better.

There are passages such as this…

A marriage is a private thing. It has its own wild laws, and secret histories, and savage acts, and what passes between married people is incomprehensible to outsiders.

And this…

Life is sly and unscrupulous, a blackguard, wolfish, severe. In service to itself, it will commit any offense. So, too, is Death possessed of infinite strategies and a gaunt nature—but also mercy, also grace and tenderness. In his own country, Death can be kind.

And this…

First I ate their love, then their will, then their despair, and then I made pies out of their bodies—and those bodies were so dear to me! But marriage is war, and you do what you must.

Valente masterfully blends the strange and the grittily realistic. Her gift for language is blatantly obvious and yet never feels self-indulgent. Deathless reminded me of some of Neil Gaiman’s novels and stories—dreamy but dark.

I highly recommend getting lost in this tale.

Will I read more by this author?

A thousand times yes!

You should read this book if…

  • You don’t need a story to be straightforward and solidly grounded in reality.
  • Russian history/folklore is your thing.
  • You enjoyed Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, Anansi Boys, or The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
  • You love novels as much for the language as the story.

Where to find Deathless on The Zon: Deathless

Up next: The Emperor’s Edge by Lindsay Buroker

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