I am so, so glad I finally read this book. A dear friend keeps sending me Valente’s books, and I’ve completely devoured all of them so far. Deathless is a blending of several myths out of Russian/Slavic mythology, regarding Koschei the Immortal and Marya Morevna. I freely confess that, while I have passing familiarity with the source material, I don’t know enough to know how much of this was Valente’s invention and how much of it comes direct from the tradition, but either way, Valente weaves those tales together with the history of Russia in the first half of the twentieth century, from the Revolution through the rise of the Cold War. The ancient themes play out against the increasingly grey background of Russia’s national fate, sprinkled now with details like rifle-demons and house-imps who learn the communist virtues of sharing their abodes collectively. Koschei, Tsar of Life, engages in his eternal battle with his brother Viy, the Tsar of Death — but the world, unarguably, is changing, and the war that was never going well is even less optimistic in these times. Human events allow Viy to claim more and more quickly than he ever has before — or does Viy’s success reflect itself in the mortal world and spur those catastrophes? The lines between Koschei’s country, Viy’s, and ours are blurry to begin with, and the smudges defining their boundaries get all the more smeared as the years progress. You know from very early on in the book that, eventually, you’re going to encounter the Siege of Leningrad and all that that entails — it looms over the story, particularly as the fairy-tale-like vagueness about time blends with the absolutism of mortal time, leaving the reader wondering when, when is this awful inevitability going to come to pass?
The central story of Deathless is that of Marya Morevna, a heroine too aware of her role in the story. She watches as three of Koschei’s lieutenants turn from birds into men in order to woo her elder sisters, and so knows early on how her life will go — except that, then, it doesn’t. Nothing in this book goes quite as planned. The world has many secrets and tripwires. It doesn’t happen as she expected, but Marya finds herself seduced by Koschei, spirited away to his country, which is both of our world and beyond it, in the way of fairy tales. Though he cherishes and spoils her, and though she makes friends in this land and takes to its customs, she must still pass trials before she can become his bride in truth. The story is not as simple for her as for other heroines, though, particularly as she learns how many of those heroines there have been in Koschei’s past, and what ends they came to.
There is an Ivan. There is always, we are told, an Ivan, a simple but lucky golden young man who steals away Koschei’s bride. Marya knows this, sees what happens to the faithless girls, the Yelenas who have abandoned Koschei in the past — locked in a factory, wiped of mind and will, slaving away at looms to create cloth-soldiers for his army. Marya determines that she will never give in as they did — but to do that, she has the weight of a lot of tradition to fight against. The threat of Ivan, like the doom of the Yelenas, looms over the story like a storm waiting to break — and when it does, things change, but never in the predictable ways, for all their inevitability.
As with the Orphan’s Tales duology, Deathless lets you know that Valente is a writer absolutely steeped in mythology of all kinds. She must have been marinating herself in it for years, and the investment has paid off remarkably. Over the past two years, she’s become one of my favourite authors for that very reason. In many ways, this book reflects versions of the katabasis story type that are much older than Hades and Persephone. I don’t know as much about the traditional myths of Koschei and Yelena, or Koschei and Marya, but what this made me think of was Inanna, the Sumerian goddess, descending to the depths, shedding layers as she goes – first clothes, then skin, then self. Marya’s initial trip in Deathless echoes this more subtly, but the shedding – and subsequent rediscovering – of self continues throughout the novel. There are rituals, going in and coming out, repetitions and reiterations as there must be in myth, but it still remains the story of a woman giving all for — what? With Inanna, we never get to know. Other heroes who make the journey have a very specific purpose, but for a heroine, the sources don’t tell us — and so with Marya. Does she go — in either direction, in or out — because she must? For love? For family? For nostalgia or desperation or curiosity? Even Marya does not always know, which is, I think, as it should be — we don’t always know why we make the decisions we do, all the more difficult when a story is riding you.
From another angle, Deathless is as fine a representation of a Dominant/submissive relationship as I’ve yet seen in literature. Everything that The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty isn’t, and even beyond what we achieve in Kushiel’s Legacy, Deathless explores in glorious abundance. None of the other reviews on Goodreads or elsewhere seemed to discuss this, which is perhaps unsurprising. I don’t know that it’s put in terms that are blatant to the unfamiliar, but to me, as someone… let’s go with ‘initiated’, it stands out. I wanted to find a quote to exemplify this, but it’s difficult, because so much of it is written in subtleties. When Koschei entices Marya away from her home in unglamorous then-Petrograd, he requires her silence and obedience as he both cossets and chastises her. He gives her everything, showers her with gifts, and she starts to become half-demon herself, but she must also learn not to drown in it, to assert herself in turn, to grow from the lessons he and his country teach her.
I don’t want to give too much away, because this is definitely a case where the telling of the tale should go unspoiled, but the tables do turn — more than once, really, some of them on mythological axes, some on more modern. It is, as all good love stories ought to be and as more D/s stories need to be, about the figures involved finding their matches in each other. It is about power, but more about negotiating that power, taking it and trading it and yielding it, not just becoming locked into a prescribed fixed pattern — and in that way, the relationship is a microcosm of the storytelling itself, exploring the places where the patterns are useful and where they can and should be coaxed, cajoled, or kicked into a new form. In the end, the question that Baba Yaga poses is the important one: Who is to rule?
That question, central to Koschei and Marya’s relationship, echoes throughout the book — Who is to rule Russia, the tsars or the Party or the Germans? Who is to rule Earth, the Tsar of Life or the Tsar of Death? Who is to rule Marya, herself or Koschei or Ivan or someone else, or the inexorable story she treads in? Her human self or her demon self? The answers are far from obvious — particularly in such a changing world, where things no longer are as they always have been. The expected does not always manifest. Marya’s choices, Koschei’s, Russia’s, they all intertwine, weaving together into an enchanting if occasionally horrifying narrative. Deathless does not end as easily as fairy tales ought to, and there are still things there at the end for the reader to untangle for herself.
I highly recommend this book to any fans of folklore and fairy tales, particularly if you’re someone who enjoys modern, magical-realism twists on them, or else the grittier, less forgiving, less redemptive versions of the stories. This is, like The Orphan’s Tales, a book I almost want to start all over again immediately after finishing it. Valente’s writing voice is exquisite — dark and lyrical, utterly poetic yet entirely unflinching from the harsh and the ugly, with a cadence familiar yet enchantingly new. Marya’s twisted, torquing path is one I’m eager to tread again.