Deathless Leaves Much To Be Desired

Hello, everyone! Today I’m writing to you about Catherynne M. Valente’s novel Deathless, and how my opinion on the book has changed during my second read through. Upon first read, I was overwhelmed by Valente’s outstanding prose. Her rich vocabulary and beautiful comparative language paints a picture of an otherworldly Russia, a country mired in the fantasies of the past while battling against a grim reality. While I was entranced by Valente’s style, I found the actual plot of the book to be too complex at times to keep up with. When I finished, I could barely recall what I had read, let alone formulate an opinion beyond admiration for the author’s prose. Now, after a second reading, my vague opinion has solidified, and I think that the reason I had so much trouble keeping up with the novel’s plot is not due to its complexity, but to its lack of substance masquerading as intricacy.

Deathless: Valente, Catherynne M.: 9780765326300: Books
Gorgeous cover, though!

Synopsis: In the early days of the Russian Revolution, Marya Morevna comes of age knowing that there is a world of magic hidden from the view of ordinary people. She sees her three sisters married off to birds who transform into men, and attends a domovoy committee meeting in the gap behind her stove. When Koschei the Deathless comes to claim Marya as his bride, she goes with him to Buyan, the Land of the Living, and falls in love with the magical land. There she learns that Koschei has had many wives, all of whom have tried to steal his death and run off with a human husband named Ivan. Determined to be Koschei’s true queen and wife, Marya peforms a series of tasks, while the war in Russia moves closer and closer to Buyan.

My thoughts: Deathless is a love letter to Russian folklore. Everyone’s favorite fairytale characters make an appearance in the novel, from rusalki and vile, to Baba Yaga and the Firebird. The principal characters, Marya Morevna, Koschei the Deathless, and Ivan, are also lifted from a fairytale, but Valente uses it only as a base for her novel, taking the names of the characters, and filling in her own motivations. The heart of the novel is the love triangle between Marya and the two men, and her struggle to choose between her desire for the extraordinary, and her need to be human.

Unfortunately, I don’t find the love triangle to be at all compelling. Neither man seems suitable for Marya, and the reason for that lies in this phrase, which Valente gives to Baba Yaga:

A wife must terrify, she must have a stronger arm than a boyar, and she must know how to rule. That’s all that matters, in the end. Who is to rule.”

In Deathless, Russia is torn by war, and even love is a battle between two people. Even though Marya spends the entirety of the book fighting for the right type of love from the two men in her life, she never seems to get it. She lets Koschei dominate her, believing that his love for her is its own form of domination, but realizes when she meets Ivan that she can never be on equal footing with the Tsar of Life. And yet with Ivan, who is only a man, she is equally dissatisfied, as he disapproves of her eccentricities. Why does Marya betray Koschei to run off with Ivan? Only because the fairytale says she must.

Even though I know you are an Ivan, and you exist to make me betray my husband, I still want to kiss you. To feel the life in you seize on the life in me…And you–you have not even seen my face, but I can feel the shock of your desire in your shoulder blades…You will not leave this tent without me.”

The problem with structuring your novel like a fairytale is that the characters can seem more like puppets on strings than flesh and blood humans. Marya suffers from this fatal lack of agency; she flits from setting to setting at the beck and call of other characters, her choices pre-ordained by the lines of an ancient story. When Baba Yaga commands her to perform three magic tasks to prove her worth, she performs those tasks. When Ivan appears in her tent and asks her to run away with him, she runs away with him. When Koschei re-appears at her door in Leningrad, begging to be taken back, she takes him back. Koschei literally takes Marya’s will from her in the beginning of the book, and it never seems like she wins it back. Marya may be a symbol for Russia, torn between competing peoples and interests, but she stops being a character somewhere along the line. Once she meets Koschei, she becomes simply another girl in a fairytale, pulled to her doom by the unseen hands of fate.

The rest of the characters in the novel are equally symbolic. Koschei exists only in relation to Marya, characterized only through allusions to his traditional backstory. Ivan, too, is paper thin, a man who pops up to seduce Marya, and then get left behind as soon as she tires of him. Valente sprinkles other magical characters in Marya’s path, their descriptions ripped from the pages of a Russian fairytale book, and their motivations just as one-dimensional. While I enjoyed learning about new aspects of Russian folklore (like a gun-sprite, who knew?), I still yearned for characters who would make choices that surprised me, rather than following prescribed story arcs. Because of this, I found it difficult to care whether these side characters lived or died, and I found it equally difficult to care about Marya’s grief for them.

There are two degrees of separation between Marya and the reader. We’re reading about Marya living a fairytale that she’s read about, and this degree of separation prohibits any deep personal connection. I couldn’t immerse myself in the story because the point of the novel is that it’s a story. For some readers, conscious observation of a narrative might be a fascinating experience, but for a person like me who wants to get lost in another character’s life, I felt cold and removed from the action unfolding before me.

In addition to being a love letter to folklore, Deathless also purports to be historical fiction. The novel touches on several key events that happened in Russia from 1915- 1942, focusing in particular on the Siege of Leningrad. While Valente describes these events in detail, she wraps them in the trapping of fantasy, therefore making these terrible events seem like they, too, are just snatches of a fairytale. In one chapter, she rounds up key historical figures like Stalin, Lenin, and the Romanovs and turns them into farmers sharing one little town and bickering over petty differences. By mythologizing real people, Valente turns them into no more than symbols, stripping them of their human complexities, and stripping Russia of its nuanced history.

Final consensus: Deathless is a fairytale, a myth, a barebones history, and a strained romance. It’s a quilt of separate stories sewn together with nothing but threads of a common culture. Somewhere, beneath all the glittering prose, there are pieces of a story that could have been expanded, but were smothered by the weight of too many competing narratives. Reading Deathless once might leave you dazzled by Valente’s prose, but reading it twice will have you searching for some deeper meaning beneath the surface.

Koschei and Ivan

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