I should first confess that I’m a huge fan of Russian literature, myth, folktale and legend. It’s a near-obsession I’ve been nursing for the last seven years. My second confession is that I am not Russian and so cannot accurately comment on some of the accusations of cultural appropriation in this book by other reviewers. My era of ‘expertise’ – and I use that word very loosely indeed(!) – is 17th Century Russia, specifically the Time of Troubles. Deathless concerns Communist Russia, so I’m not able to put this review into context, and will have to comment on the worth of the story alone.
Valente is a beautiful writer. From the very first page, Deathless sings the melody of a long-forgotten fairy tale classic. Everything from Valente’s choice of words to her unique take on folk characters such as Koschei and Baba Yaga is her own spinning of a familiar yarn. Deathless isn’t just a retelling – it defies genre; at times it is an historical novel with fantasy elements; occasionally it dips into literary fiction; mostly it’s a fairytale retelling in a modern setting.
Marya, the main character, is an odd child, who sees the magic the world tries to hide. She’s strong, and grows stronger, and has faults the same as everyone. She is the daughter of twelve mothers, thanks to the new ‘share and share alike’ mentality of Communism.
Koschei is the Tsar of Life, which doesn’t mean he’s a good guy, even though he’s constantly at war with his brother Viy, the Tsar of Death. Viy isn’t evil either: these are concepts that don’t apply. It is with Koschei that Valente takes the most liberty; he appears as a handsome, dark-haired and formidable stranger and takes Marya away; the Koschei the Deathless of traditional tales has him looking something a bit more like this:
Not quite so attractive.
Their relationship is passionate and there is a strong element of submissive vs. dominant between them, especially sexually. My interpretation of this was that Koschei was indeed a metaphor for life. Sometimes life is difficult, sometimes it’s wonderful, sometimes it royally f***s you over. As many characters say during Deathless: “Life’s like that.”
However strange Marya’s and Koschei’s relationship is, it’s clear that they love each other deeply, and are well suited to each other: Marya is full of life; Koschei, as deathless as he is, craves the life she represents and possesses.
Enter Ivan. There’s always an Ivan.
Ivan is Marya’s fated ‘knight in golden armour’, the human man who will steal her away from Koschei, leaving him in despair. I’ll come right out and say it: I didn’t like Ivan. I always have a thing against people stealing other people’s spouses, but Ivan seemed wholly undeserving. I didn’t feel he added anything to the character of Marya and was just there because he needed to be for story purposes. The rivalry between Koschei and Ivan fell a bit flat (except at the end, in the basement) and I felt that Marya had made completely the wrong choice – and I didn’t even particularly like Koschei.
The stand-out character was Baba Yaga. She was vibrant, unexpected, and delightfully coarse.
Anyway. The book was beautiful, and I am left in no doubt about Valente’s wonderful writing skills. Her prose was lovely and flowed like poetry; I cannot fault it, nor her choice to write in a very distinctive ‘fairy tale’ manner. These were the aspects I particularly enjoyed.
The reason I’m only giving it 2.5 stars, however, is that I found it severely lacking in ‘page turning’ power. I’m not one to shy away from a complicated book, and I’ve been speeding through novels this year, but Deathless made me falter completely. As objectively good as it is, it lacks punch and that ‘extra something’ to make it truly worth reading. I liked it, yes, absolutely, but I don’t think I’d read it again, at least not for a long time. Others will and have disagreed with me, I know, but I couldn’t read Deathless for longer than half an hour without wanting a break.
That said, the last chapter gave me immense satisfaction and I’m very glad I persevered and finished the novel.
So, if you’re looking for a beautifully written, thoughtful book packed with metaphor and meaning, this book might be for you. Valente is truly talented in that respect. If you’re looking for a novel to keep you hooked until the last page, I’m afraid this isn’t quite it. Almost, but not quite.