Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Venture into the world of Russian folklore with Deathless, Catherynne M. Valente's mesmerizing story of the human woman Marya Morevna and the immortal being Koschei, whom she loved. Three birds took her three sisters away in marriage, but for Marya, the evil Koschei himself comes knocking. He whisks her away to the (literally) beating heart of his kingdom away from the mortal world to become his queen.

There she meets Baba Yaga, Koschei's mother who, in the manner of all the mothers-in-law in existence, doubts anyone could ever be good enough for her precious son, and thus puts Marya to the somewhat lethal challenge of proving her worth. Along the way, she loses her humanity and regains it when she returns to the mortal world, meets the young man Ivan Nikolayevich, and plunges into one of the darkest periods of Russian history.

How to talk about Deathless? Leaving a five-star rating doesn't seem like nearly enough praise, and going on about how much I loved it wouldn't seem to do it justice, because that would be like two hours of me rambling like a fool and insisting you read it. Two hours you'll never get back. But love it, I absolutely did. I don't think I've read anything with such tragic beauty lurking in the shadow of its many-hued wonders.

The whispering imagery of Valente's prose is perfect for bringing to life the many otherworldly events that take place in the book, yet it somehow doesn't take away the stark reality of the siege of Leningrad. In fact, the detached and haunting sing-song lyricism of those chapters bring it home even harder somehow, an echo of Marya's more innocent memories to harshly reflect the terrible suffering of Leningrad's present. It very nearly broke my heart to read about the dying spirits of houses and little starving Sofiya. These were the best and most terrible chapters.

I also loved reading about Valente's spin on Russian fairy tales and folklore, which I admittedly don't know very much about. The cadence and structure of the prose recall fairy tale conventions, with a constant repetition and variation of three things -- three tasks, three sisters, and so on. The stories of creation and the divisions of the tsars and tsaritsas enchanted me. Koschei himself was most compellingly written, harsh and vivid and gruesomely beautiful – very much the personification of life. And only Marya's incredible fierceness could match (and ultimately tame) such a terrible king. Ivan was less compelling as a character, but I found his story no less heartbreaking. As Marya had been bespelled by Koschei, so had Ivan been trapped by her, the pair of them travelling equally treacherous roads to hold onto happiness.

I've been mulling it over for the past thirty minutes and my conclusion is that
Deathless is ridiculously impossible to shoehorn into any good all-encompassing description.

Deathless is a story about love and a story about marriages -- at times, two entirely different things -- and the sacrifices and compromises you have to make for them. It's a story about growing up and growing old, a story life and a story about death and how these two things struggle against each other endlessly, and how you just have to keep going on and forge your own path despite the dictates of fate. It's a story about escapism and reality, how both can be wonderful and terrible in their own separate ways. It's a fairy tale turned on its head, a fantasy story that weaves vanishing threads around a tragic and horrifying slice of history. Deathless is as much a story as it is poetry.

You should just read it.


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