Hi hello. I’m baaaaaack. Thanks, work, grad school, and life. Anyway.
Deathless by Catherine M. Valente is the fairy tale you always wanted to read. Growing up, I loved fairy tales that were retold and set in a historical context. Briar Rose, for example. Where “Sleeping Beauty” was actually a girl who survived one of the concentration camps? I lived for stories like that.
Deathless is set in Revolutionary Russia. As a child of the 90s, all I truly know is that the USSR disbanded the same year I was born. That’s not to say things got better there. Just…on paper, the USSR was no longer a thing.
Little Marya Morevna saw a bird become a man. He came for one of her older sisters, and took her as his bride. This happened two more times as Marya grew up. She had the Russian equivalent of Harry Potter’s house elves in her home, mending things and making the small living spaces just a teeny bit bigger. Marya was meant for something a little bigger.
Now, if you know nothing about Russian folklore, this is where things get a little tricky. The book does a good job of trying to give a simplified version of the old tales that have been passed down for generations. But I still wanted to more about the tales that gave the book the magic it has. I admit, I bought a book on Russian fairy tales. I work in a bookstore. Don’t judge me. It helped a little.
Koschei the Deathless is the man (it’s the closest word we have for it in English) meant for Marya. Or maybe she was born for him? Either way.
The next huge chunk of the book is him taking her to his home of Buyan and her life there. It’s possibly the closest thing to wrapping your brain in velvet and giving it dark chocolate and really great red wine. It’s that lush.
Marya never felt like she belonged in her hometown that kept changing names depending on who was in control, but she never really felt at home in Koschei’s domain, either. What makes the story so wonderful is inclusion of other classic folk characters, like Baba Yaga (y’all don’t even know how excited I was to see her included, Pictures at an Exhibition is one of my favorite classical pieces). She journeys back into our world and meets Ivan. In Russian tales, Ivan is always the hero. He saves the day. And the funny thing about Koschei is, well, he’s always the villain. But as someone who didn’t grow up with these stories, I just thought, holy schnikes this dude’s hella attractive on paper. This is one of those times that I wish I’d known the original stories before I read the book, because I tell you whut, I’m a sucker for anything that shows villains in a sympathetic light. (Except for obvious things like real world bad guys.)
Ivan didn’t really…I dunno, do anything for me. He kinda seemed like a human version of a very Russian floppy puppy. In my mind, he was doofy. Like he would be the frat bro on campus who’s actually really sweet and a little ditzy. But, I mean, he is technically the hero. Well. Actually. Marya is the real hero. She’s an officer in Koschei’s army, which is always fighting the war against Viy, the Tsar of Death. Marya ends up falling for Ivan, as you do when really the only man you’ve ever interacted with besides your father is the dude who kinda kidnapped you. Koschei says she is free to do what she wants.
She returns to Leningrad just when things get truly awful. I’m talking real life cannibalism here. Marya and Ivan try to survive, though. Koschei shows up on her doorstep, because he’s that kinda guy. So Marya does the only sensible thing: chains him up in the basement as her own sex slave.
I won’t spoil the story for you, but trust me when I say it’s a mindfuck and you get really angry later.
While at its core it is a love story, it’s also a historical tale. The events surrounding the story: wars, uprisings, CANNIBALISM…all of those really happened. Like I said, as a child of the 90s, I didn’t really know what happened in the USSR. And, thanks to education in the southern part of the United States, I didn’t learn much outside of the Cold War and that Hitler dun goofed when he thought it was a good idea to try to invade Russia in the middle of winter. This one book has sparked an intense curiosity regarding all things Russian. I’m talking about having a to-be-read pile of all history books for the first time in my life.
It’s rare for me to want to dive headfirst into a subject because of one book. But Deathless has made it impossible for me to not want to learn more about a culture that was barely touched on in school. The war is going badly, but then, the war is always going badly. I think those words can pertain to everything in today’s culture. I give Catherine M. Valente’s Deathless 9.5 out of 10 firebirds.