I just finished reading Catherynne M. Valente
and I have so much I want to say about it I don’t know where to start.
I bought this book right after Readercon, as Catherynne Valente had been there and I had met her and she was lovely and I figured I should read her adult novels, as the only thing of hers I’d read
was The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making
, which has really stuck with me, and the more I think about it the more impressed I am with the way that it seems to be familiar and strange at the same time, both for children and adults, a simultaneously traditional and modern fairy tale. When trying to decide which adult book to buy, I settled on Deathless
, which promised to be a retelling of an old Russian folktale about Marya Morevna, a character I am minimally familiar with due to her appearance in the Tatterhood and Other Tales
anthologies I was obsessed with when I was wee. Also the title and cover seemed specifically crafted to get my attention, because I am predictable.
The story, in short, is about a Russian girl named Marya Morevna, who runs off with and marries Koschei the Deathless, the Tsar of Life, who can really be surprisingly evil considering he’s the god of life. Also surprisingly creepy! His magical land of Buyan is a place where all things are living, meaning that the walls are made of living skin and hair and the fountains spurt blood and aaaaaaggghhh, but I am getting ahead of myself. Maria finds out that she is basically the latest in the Koschei-and-his-wife story, which usually involves him abducting a girl named Yelena, who then eventually runs off with a hot but dumb dude named Ivan and steals Koschei’s death. But not permanently, because folktales and fairy stories never permanently end.
Marya’s version of the story begins around the beginning of the Communist revolution and takes us through about World War II, and there is a lot of Soviet history and culture featured prominently in the book. Some of it is funny, such as the various folktale creatures that take up Party allegiance, and some of it is harrowing, like when Marya runs off back home to Leningrad with Ivan, and is trapped there through the Siege of Leningrad in the early 1940s, the deadliest siege in history.
In addition to being extremely well-researched in terms of history, Catherynne Valente really blew me away with her use of language, which is something I don’t say very often (I generally think in modern books I should be engaged with the story and possibly exploring ideas about [insert themes relating to humanity here], not counting metaphors), but this book does some really rich, multi-layered, poetic things with language without getting dense. She makes ample use of old fairy-tale-telling conventions, particularly repetition/mirroring and things happening in threes. Marya has three older sisters, and every time something happens with the sisters—whether it’s the sisters getting married, or Marya going to visit them, or her sisters’ husbands appearing to Ivan as birds—it is broken into three scenes, one for each sister, from oldest to youngest, and the scenes all play out with the same structure and most of the same language, with very specific details changed. Each of the sisters marries a bird who turns into a man who represents the Russian ideal of the year they were married. There is probably some symbolic stuff that I missed since I know little about birds, but I learned a bit about the evolution of the Russian ideal man. Baba Yaga—now known as Comrade Yaga, except when she thinks that’s too familiar—famously sends Marya on three quests, the last of which involves Marya having to ride Yaga’s mortar and pestle. The scene where Marya gets in the mortar—written from the mortar’s point of view, preceded by a scene where Marya makes her preparations—is one of the most delightfully weird scenes I’ve read in anything in a long time; I was so delighted, in fact, that I read the scene three times and showed it to somebody else before I could continue reading.
Other bits that stuck with me included: Madame Lebedeva’s speech on makeup, the Communist house-imp committee (a natural occurrence, given the Communist practice of moving multiple families into one house), Naganya the rifle imp, the dragon that does paperwork for Stalin because he can kill more people that way, and—for me, the most perfect encapsulation of what this book does
that makes it so awesome—the introduction to the village of Yaichka.
I admit I was reading so fast that I missed the first obvious clues about what was going on Yaichka, when all of Marya and Koschei’s neighbors were being described. I twigged on to who the neighbors were at the third set of neighbors, who are the last Russian royal family. The citizens of Yaichka are known only by their first names and patronymics, no surnames; the bell only rang in my fat head when I saw that the youngest daughter of the third family was Anastasia and their son was sickly and named Alexei. Then I went and started the chapter over, with their neighbors Vladimir Ilyich and his wife Nadya Konstantinova, and their two little sons, Josef and Leon, and their description of how everything in Vladimir’s household is equally distributed, and how he has a gift for convincing people of strange ideas, and how little Josef tends to smash things up without really “getting it” about whatever problem his parents are trying to solve… and then I realized who this family was and it all made sense and was also beautiful and metaphorical. The second neighbor I couldn’t recognize so I Googled the names it gave and hoped the first result would be the right one, and I think it was, because it seemed to make sense when I reread the passage. (The second neighbor was a famous Russian military commander I had never heard of, and his passage described how precise and orderly his house was, and how he and his daughters defended Yaichka from the wolves howling in the woods.)
The only thing I didn’t really get about this book was some of the discussion about marriage, which is fairly significant, since the book is enormously about marriage. But I have never been married, and all discussion of marriage is alien-sounding and uncomfortable for me on a visceral level. So all I can say about the treatment of marriage in this book is that it is very dramatic. She does mention that to outsiders it looks incomprehensible, and that I can agree with.
This book definitely left me wanting to do a great deal of research about Russia and Russian folklore, and then come back and read it again. Alas, I probably won’t, as I have about ten other Catherynne Valente books I have to read.