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 M. 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 is the latest from Catherynne M. Valente, and so, of course, it is a delight.
Having cast brilliant new light on One Thousand and One Nights in her two-volume opus The Orphan's Tales, and in The Habitation of the Blessed made a lurid and lyrical fantasy of the legends of 12th century Christian champion Prester John, Deathless sees Valente set her inimitable sights on Slavic folklore, with suitably stunning results. It begins:
"In a city by the sea which was once called St. Petersburg, then Petrograd, then Leningrad, then, much later, St. Petersburg again, there stood a long, thin house on a long, thin street. By a long, thin window, a child in a pale blue dress and pale green slippers waited for a bird to marry her." (p.15)
The child is Marya Morevna, here recast as a precocious young girl who whiles away her days dreaming of a husband, and better, brighter things. As well she should, for there are innumerable trials ahead: dark and troubling times for her city, for her family, and not least of all for Marya herself. However "the world is ordered in such a way that birds may be expected to turn into husbands at a moment's notice and no one may comment upon it at all," (p.23) so when "a great, hoary old black owl" (p.54) appears at the door of the long, thin house on the long, thin street as "a handsome young man in a handsome black coat, his dark hair curly and thick, flecked with silver, his mouth half-smiling, as if anticipating a terribly sweet thing," (p.55) and when that man asks after the hand of the girl who watches all from the long, thin window above, Marya's fate is sealed, and her dreams made real.
So it is that Marya comes to wed Koschei the Deathless, the Tsar of Life, who cannot die. "Fiendishly convenient things, wives. Better than cows. They'll love you for beating them, and work 'til they die." (p.113) Marya insists it will be different, for her... but perhaps the lady doth protest too much. So it is, in any event, that she comes to Buyan, Koschei's phantasmagorical kingdom beyond the sea, where the rivers run silver and buildings have skin. And so it is, one final time, that Marya meets Chairman Baba Yaga, Zemlehyed the leshy, Naganya the vintovnik who has a rifle scope for an eye, and the walking work of art that is Madame Lebedeva, whose make-up tends to match her cucumber soup.
I don't suppose Deathless is at 350 pages a particularly long novel, yet it seems an incredible length to prolong what is, at heart, a fairy tale, and Valente does so with such staunch authority and seeming ease as to stun. There is mystery and suspense in Deathless, wonder, awe and innocence; the form's every traditional demand is catered to, respectfully if not slavishly, and delicately refreshed whenever one trope or another appears in danger of tepidity. We stay in no one place for very long. The tone of Marya's tale darkens and lightens intermittently, as the years go by and, like a living being breathing, the Motherland rises and falls.
Valente finds particular success in her use of recurrence: in Deathless the rule of three is in full effect. Marya has three sisters, who marry three birds, who give her three gifts when she travels thrice nine kingdoms to escape Koschei's clutches and three friends who will never leave her otherwise. Beyond the reach of the three, there are moments - and moments aplenty - where prosaic phrases and sayings crop up once and again, to mean a different thing every time. Valente seems to mould the old anew with her every word, shifting metaphor and meaning and motif just so, so as to sustain a heady note usually so brief as to leave one wanting.
So too does Deathless leave one wanting, in the best possible sense. Dense and elusive, you will not likely find it an easy novel to read - rather the narrative is surreal and erotic and disturbing, often in the space of a single sentence - yet when you turn that last page, you will wish there was another, and another after that. Such is the joy of Catherynne M. Valente's fiction: her glorious use of language, her revelatory imagination, prose which will arrest you mid-breath. You could say Deathless wears a coat of many colours. It is a tapestry of new, old, borrowed and blue, and each fragment of the whole is as vibrant and integral as the last. Stunning stuff.