Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Review: Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente

Catherynne M. Valente continues her mastery of turning fairytales on their heads in her latest, Deathless. Set against Stalinist-era Russia, Deathless tells the story of Marya Morevna, youngest of four sisters, and Koschei, called Deathless, the Tsar of Life.

Each of Marya's sisters marry men who previously had been birds fallen from the tree outside Marya's window. Marya waits for her magical bird-man to swoop and whisk her away too; instead, eleven other families move in to the house and, in an attempt to escape the encroaching claustrophobia, Marya falls in with the house's magical creature-protector-imp Zvonok, a domoviye. Zvonok introduces Marya to an invisible world, a world of magic, of the Tsar of Life and Tsar of Death, to a place only a few humans have ever visited.

Finally, a man comes for Marya: Koschei the Deathless, the Tsar of Life. In Russian folklore, Koschei is usually depicted as villainous and, though he can be monstrous in this retelling, Valente invests enough empathy in him a small amount of tenderness and love leaks from beneath his savage veil. And Marya, in love with Koschei, yearns to become a queen of this invisible world, of the island of Buyan; however, she must successfully complete three tasks set by Koschei's sister, Baba Yaga.

Deathless isn't escapist fantasy, however; being Koschei's queen is not how Marya Morevna survives the Stalinist regime and the siege of Leningrad during World War II. Instead, Marya experiences the horrors of war firsthand on two levels: 1) the "comprehensible, real" world and 2) the magical realm of Koschei. Marya moves between these worlds, fighting in a war between Koschei and Viy, the Tsar of Death, a war they've been waging since time began, and surviving during the siege of Leningrad. Valente balances these paralleling worlds - the real and the fantastic - with skillful grace. As Marya recounts to her magical friend, Comrade Lebedeva, "If a novelist wrote a true story about how things really happened, no one would believe him, and he might even be punished for spreading propaganda. But if he wrote a book full of lies about things that could never really happen, with only a few true things hidden in it, well, he would be hailed as a hero of the People..." It is the hiding of these "few true things" that makes Deathless so compelling - the chapter concerning the siege of Leningrad seen through Zvonok the domoviye's point of view is particularly affecting, as is the push-pull nature of Marya and Koschei's marriage.

Adding to this intriguing fairytale is Valente's captivating prose. Her words are always full, nearly bursting with wonder, and Deathless is Valente at her finest. Here is an example (Zvonok speaking to Marya):

Last week a man held a concert Glinka Hall. Snow fell in through the broken roof the whole time, piling up on the oboist's head. The air raid sirens played, too. We all listened from the roofs. Like cats. But not like cats. There are no cats left in Leningrad. Ivan said, If only we could eat violin music. I kissed his thumbnail. He said he was glad of me. Then he crawled into that bed...

Valente expertly mixes a sense of dread and hopelessness with something like absurd normality: as families starve during the siege, a man holds a concert and everyone listens from the roofs of their houses. And even after Ivan wishes to "eat violin music" he says he is "glad of [Zvonok]." In the direst moments hope is still preserved.

In the end, Deathless is a dream: of different worlds - ours and the magical - coexsting together, understanding the differences between what is living and what is really dead, and where each of us belong. Recommended.

Also recommended: The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter.

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