In Deathless, Catherynne M. Valente has combined Soviet Russia with fairy tales and folklore into a compelling retelling of the story of Koschei the Deathless. Reminiscent of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita in its magic realism and its darkly comic satirical edge, Deathless is naturally less sharp. Valente’s love of the folklore and interest in the period shine through engagingly.
One of Valente’s greatest strengths has always been the power and beauty of her prose. She has a gift with words, not just storytelling that is on full display here. The slow, tragic love story of Marya Morevna and Koschei is beautifully, almost hypnotically rendered. The opening chapters chronicling Marya’s childhood and their courtship are a near-perfect melding not only of fairytale tropes and elements, but also of fairytale style, with a material sense of history and place. These juxtapositions are where the book is at its strongest. Valente takes great care to ensure that Marya remains a strong, intelligent woman even when she enters Koschei’s realm. This world of firebirds, huts with chicken legs, magical villages, and house spirits is beautifully rendered, but thrown into welcome relief when the world of Stalin’s Russia and the Siege of Leningrad encroach on to the magic.
I personally love fairytales, have an interest in Russian folklore, and have enjoyed several of Valente’s previous novels. Deathless has a combination of elements that would seem almost tailor-made for me, and yet there is something missing. The novel starts to loose focus as the story progresses, and the perfectly judged beauty of the opening cannot be maintained throughout. I recommend Deathless as a wonderfully written fairytale that gains poignancy from its juxtaposition with the realities of Soviet Russia. It is not without its flaws but is definitely worth reading for both the prose and the wonderfully realized world.