Read as part of the unintentional Russian binge I’ve been on.
I checked this out when it passed through my hands at work, partly because of the Russian influence, partly because it sounded interesting and partly because of the author. I’ve been hearing a lot about Valente recently because her book The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making has been getting a good bit of buzz. I haven’t read it yet but it’s on my list. I thought this might be an interesting introduction to her writing.
So I read it and I liked it, for the most part. Valente has a great talent for words, although at times it feels a bit self conscious- as if she knows this will sound interesting or unique but it really could have been said a different, better way. But that’s a small thing and it bothered me more at the beginning of the book than at the end so perhaps I just needed to get used to her voice.
Deathless is the story of Marya Morevna, a young girl born just at the end of the 1800’s. She grows up during the turbulent times in Russian history that began just before World War I and continued through the Communist Revolution. Marya is chosen to be the bride of Koschei the Deathless but before being allowed to marry him, she is given three tasks by Baba Yaga. After her marriage, she is drawn into the war between life and death before rediscovering her humanity after falling in love with a simple soldier.
I feel that I missed a lot of references because of my lack of knowledge regarding Russian myths. There were plenty of things I did understand though. Baba Yaga, for one, and her house with the chicken legs. Firebirds make frequent appearances and the man who reminds Marya of her humanity is named Ivan- a common Russian name that has appeared in all of the few Russian tales I have read.
The one thing that Valente excels at is creating a fairy tale from her novel. If you have read any amount of fairy tales, one thing that tends to stand out is the repetition in the plot. And this is not a bad thing. But there is a certain form in fairy tales that Valente makes good use of. For example, Marya has three older sisters and Valente describes each of their marriages in almost the exact same way. This repetition helps the reader (and, as it was initially intended for, the listener) to remember plot points and for the teller to succinctly and clearly express them.
But the main thing that bothered me about this book was the lack of purpose. The best stories have a problem, a climax, and a solution. The only thing that I can think of that might be the problem would be Marya’s loss of her humanity. But if that is the problem, I’m not really sure why I should care. Lots of stories deal with characters losing their humanity and become more interesting for it. There are also large jumps in the timeline of the plot and characters disappear before we can get to know them enough to care about them. Deathless seems more of a cautionary tale against meddling in the affairs of magic and mythical characters but Marya takes too much evident pleasure in the world she lives in to make that seem like a viable option either.
So I did enjoy this book and might even read it again but it’s not something that I feel I can recommend as a book to make an effort to read.