Review: Deathless – Catherynne M. Valente

“What is the world but a boxing ring where fools and devils put up their fists?”

Valente based Deathless (2011) on the Russian folktale, The Death of Koschei the Deathless, which can probably be best compared to Bluebeard. Ivan marries the warrior princess, Marya Morevna, who forbids him from entering their cellar. When he inevitably does so, he finds Koschei, a demon, chained up. Cue trials by Baba Yaga, numerous coincidences, a battle, and a happy ending.

In Deathless, Marya is the protagonist, rather than Ivan, which allows Valente to answer the question of why on earth Marya was hiding Koschei down there in the first place (something which Alexander Afanasyev clearly forgot to ask when The Death of Koschei the Deathless was first collected in Narodnye russkie skazki). The imagery and scope of her novel is as rich as one would hope of a fantasy kingdom running parallel to revolutionary Russia.

The novel is only made a tougher read because Valente is preoccupied with the inevitability of the fates of Marya, Koschei and Ivan. She clearly wants us to question the agency of a fairytale heroine, but by having characters that know exactly what will happen, and say as much (frequently) it serves to weaken the tragedy. She doesn’t so much toy with the element of surprise, as beat it into submission, and also tends to be heavy handed with large and anticlimactic time jumps between the sections of the novel.

The structure of the novel is frustrating, but the beauty of Valente’s unambiguous, vivid prose makes Deathless overwhelmingly readable.

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