Deathless by Cathrynne M. Valente
Before I ever picked it up from the library, I’d been reading Deathless. On tumblr, I follow the-writers-ramblings, who, over the last month or so, has been reblogging absolutely gorgeous photo sets, fanmixes, and quotes about the novel. She finished a few days ago, full of absolute joy and love. Through her and other readers moved to create on tumblr, Deathless has already been haunting my steps, sharpening my hunger for it.
Which is, of course, a double-edged sword. No two readers’ readings are alike, so tailing someone else’s a surefire way for me, at least, to overhype myself.It’s strange—I’ve gotten to the point in my life where I’ve become very good at managing my expectations in every other aspect of my life, but I can’t seem to keep it a lid on it when it comes to stories. So I shield myself from spoilers and allow myself to imagine away what, say, the next series of Doctor Who might have in store. (Of course, it does help that my own daydreams, full of terrifying girls, returning characters, heartbreaking continuity nods, and actual diversity, do not stand much of a chance of actually happening in the next series of Doctor Who.) It’s easier in series—you have a baseline to work off of. Not so with the single novel. Thus, as the-writers-ramblings began to see the novel as full of tall, dark forests, shining, sharp girls, mystery, and power, so did I come to expect the same to rise out of the novel for me.
Deathless has these things in spades, but there’s a reason Valente refers to it as mythpunk, a term of her own devising. Inspired by the Russian folktales of her husband’s family, Valente relocates the folk tale “The Death of Koschei the Deathless” to the Russian Revolution, knitting the story of Marya Morevna to cultural upheaval and, in the words of tumblr user gatheringbones, the “nigh-total cultural death” of Russia after World War II. Folk elements like rusalka and domovoi lay alongside more prosaic matters, like shared housing, starvation, and communism. Everyone is adapting to the new world order except, it seems, Koschei, the Tsar of Life who comes to take Marya away as his bride, where she grows to be as possessive and powerful as he is. But war stalks them all. And not simply the Revolution and World War II, but Koschei’s unending war with his brother, the Tsar of Death—but it’s one and the same, isn’t it?
Students of history are taught about the atrocities of World War II in intricate detail; as a rubbernecking child, I consumed slave narratives and Holocaust novels in equal measure and horror. But for American students, it’s sometimes a shock to realize that Russian casualties numbered over twenty-six million, compared to the much, much lower figures for European nations. Russia was consumed by rapid and radical change during the twentieth century, as Valente captures, making it an actually quite logical setting for “The Death of Koschei the Deathless.” I mean, beyond the sheer numbers, the liminality is in the title.
Valente has a field day with this aspect of her adaptation; things have changing names that often deny their previous ones, one mother becomes a dozen, domovoi form housing councils of their own. There are more traditional fairy tale turns of phrase here and there, especially in repetition with slight variations. I adore Valente’s style to pieces, and she’s in fine, gorgeous form here. As Marya attempts to make sense of her world, starting with the three birds who come to take her sisters away during her childhood, she sees it as only a child of the Revolution can.
But it’s passages from the mouths of other women that stick with me the most. Obviously, writing “The Death of the Koschei the Deathless” from Marya’s perspective is part of the storied history of feminist retellings of fairy tales, but Baba Yaga (Koschei’s disapproving sister) and Kseniya (a rusalka Marya and her Ivan live with for a period of time) offer different, heartbreaking takes on the world around them. Baba Yaga tells Marya how you become deathless: Walk the same tale over and over, until you wear a groove in the world, until even if you vanished, the tale would keep turning, keep playing, like a phonograph, and you’d have to get up again, even with a bullet through your eye, to play your part and say your lines” (110). But it’s Kseniya who sticks with me most, obliquely critiquing how folk tales express the views of the cultures that write them:
“Why should I not want something better?” she went on. “Doesn’t everyone? Don’t you? The old order, it is good for the old. A farmer wants his son to be afraid of beautiful women, so that he will not leave home too soon, so he tells a story about how one drowned his brother’s cousin’s friend in a lake, not because he was a pig who deserved to be drowned, but because beautiful women are bad, and also witches. And it doesn’t matter that she didn’t ask to be beautiful, or to be born in a lake, or to live forever, or to not know how men breathe until they stop doing it. Well, I do not want to be beautiful, or a woman, or anything. I want to know how men breathe. I want my daughter to be in the Young Pioneers, and grow up to be something important, like a writer or an immunologist, to grow up not even knowing what a rusalka is, because then I will know her world does not in any way resemble one in which farmers tell their sons how bad beautiful women are.” (266)
Unfortunately, like Six-Gun Snow White, Deathless does fizzle out towards the end. As gatheringbones points out, the idea is to pan back on devastated Russia, but it doesn’t particularly gel. And, because I managed to overhype myself, Marya could never be sharp enough for me, which is hardly the character’s fault. She’s smart, human, and hungry, to be sure, but she’s not one of those doomed princesses with eyes like justice that I so adore.
Bottom line: Deathless is a smart and beautifully written update of “The Death of Koschei the Deathless,” setting it in revolutionary Russia for all the right reasons. The end fizzles out, unfortunately, despite its obvious virtues. If you’d like.
I rented this book from the public library.