Monthly Archives: October 2012

Deathless, by Catherynne M Valente

Title: Deathless
Author: Catherynne M Valente
Year of Publication: 2011
Length: 352 pages
Genre: fantasy/folklore/magical realism
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 4.75 stars

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.

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Beauty and the Werewolf, by Mercedes Lackey

Title: Beauty and the Werewolf (Tales of the Five Hundred Kingdoms #6)
Author: Mercedes Lackey
Year of Publication: 2011
Length: 408 pages
Genre: fantasy romance
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 3 stars
Spoiler Warning: Armed and active, because there’s no way to discuss what I liked and disliked about this book without “giving away” the ending.

This book suffers from its predictability. And that’s a shame, because there was a lot of potential here, and I did enjoy this book — but very much in a fluffy, easy-to-digest sort of way. This book is the latest in Lackey’s Five Hundred Kingdoms series, which I generally enjoy but which are far from the best fairy tale adaptations out there. She’s starting turning them into mash-ups more than just retellings, and this one smushes Beauty and the Beast and Little Red Riding Hood (as though the cover didn’t give those things away). So we meet Bella (and as a sidebar: is anyone else really sick of that name for heroines? Which is a shame, because it’s a lovely name, really, but Twilight has just caused it to be so overplayed. Especially as short for Isabella. Couldn’t we get more creative? Arabella? Annabella? Orabella? Something?), the eldest daughter of a merchant, who has for years run her household, keeping her stepmother and stepsisters in line. She also periodically makes trips out into the woods to chat with “Granny”, a wisewoman who lives out there — and while coming back from one of these jaunts, she gets nipped by a werewolf. When the King’s forces find out what happened to her, they essentially kidnap her and take her to the home of Duke Sebastian — the werewolf — for a quarantine to see if she’s infected. Sebastian’s werewolf curse is a great secret, kept from the world at large, and though not only a Duke but a magician in his own right, he is looked after by his illegitimate half-brother, Eric, a woodsman and gamekeeper who patrols the forests to try and keep everyone safe from him. Ostensibly. We first meet Eric when he’s sexually assaulting women at a party in town, and then when he encounters Bella in the woods and mistakes her for a peasant girl rather than the daughter of someone of consequence, he tries to coerce her into having sex with him — and as good as says that he takes that “in trade” when he catches female poachers, in exchange for letting them off. So he’s pretty clearly a sleaze and set up from the very beginning to be the villain.

I was so hoping he wouldn’t be. If Lackey hadn’t given him those casual rapist qualities, he would’ve been a really interesting character — because he knows his trade well, and . So I kept vaguely hoping that he would turn out to be other than he seemed and that someone else would be the real villain, because it would’ve allowed him to be a much stronger character. The trouble is that… we never meet anyone else. If Eric was a red herring, there was never any indication of who he might be a red herring for, so it’s pretty clear that there are not, in fact, any other villains in the story. And the other problem is that — again, casual rapist qualities aside — he’s a much more interesting character than our theoretical male hero, Sebastian, who is pretty much just a complete milksop. As is often the case in the Five Hundred Kingdoms stories — and this has been a criticism I’ve had of the whole series — the love story seems completely slapped on. There’s really no reason for Bella to fall for him except proximity, and we don’t get any emotional depth out of either of them. They just sort of… decide to get married because of … reasons. It’s odd. These books would, on the whole, be better without the romance angle at all.

All of that said — there are things to like about this book. I didn’t find Bella as annoying as it seems some Goodreads reviewers did. I thought she actually avoided a lot of pitfalls, and if there were points that were a little too “look how unconventional a female she is!”, well, that’s often true of many of the historical romances I read as well. The very best parts of the book, in my estimation, were the ones where Bella was interacting with the invisible servants, learning to communicate with them, and learning from them. That was very clever on Lackey’s part. They’re sort of wraiths (in a ghostly way, not a Dementor way), largely stripped of memory and personality, but a few of them hold a sense of themselves as individuals, and the way they interact with Bella is a lot of fun to watch develop. I always enjoy when she thinks about magic and explains its workings in new ways. Some of Sebastian’s practices are definitely reminiscent of her Elemental Masters series as well, and it gives a little more shape to magic in the Five Hundred Kingdoms. We also see Godmother Elena back again for a cameo, which is a nice sense of continuity.

Overall, this is perfectly serviceable fluff. Not exquisite, and I’m pretty sure that The Fire Rose is a far superior version of this story from Lackey, but it was a quick and enjoyable enough read.

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Practical Magic, by Alice Hoffman

Title: Practical Magic
Author: Alice Hoffman
Year of Publication: 1995
Length: 317
Genre: magical realism
New or Re-Read?: re-read
Rating: 4.5 stars

This is one of those things where I love the book, and I love the movie, but they are completely different stories, and I love them in very different ways. Most people know the movie but not the book, and in a lot of ways, that’s a shame. The book is not as easy to digest. The characters are more complex and not always as likeable, but they’re very real. But that’s a lot of why I like it. I find something to empathise with in almost all of the main characters, and sometimes it’s for their flaws rather than for their virtues. Sally’s sense of justice, Gillian’s need to be adored, Antonia’s childish selfishness, Kylie’s spooky intuition. I don’t identify with any one of them entirely, but I can see some part of myself in each, and that makes the book thoroughly enjoyable.

The story: Sally and Gillian, orphaned at an early age, grow up with their aunts (or possibly great-aunts; it’s never made quite clear, but it doesn’t seem possible, age-wise, that Jet and Frances are their mother’s sister). Strange things happen all around their family, giving them a reputation for witchcraft and leading to the girls being ostracized by their peers — but the women of their town still come to the aunts for advice and help. The sisters grow up quite close, having no other options for companionship, despite how different they are; they also learn learn by negative example, watching the women who come to the aunts, crazy for love. They both end up building high walls around their hearts, though in different ways. Sally eventually does love and marry, but falls into a deep year-long depression when she’s widowed; Gillian begins using and losing men from the age of 14 on, tearing through hearts with no conscience or consequence, until a brute named Jimmy hooks her but good. Both girls end up running away from their childhood home, though it takes Sally rather longer to make the break. They don’t see each other for eighteen years, during which time Sally’s daughters grow into teenagers — nowhere near as close as she and Gillian were. Antonia is spoiled and self-centered and often quite cruel to younger, awkward Kylie.

Their lives up-end, though, when Gillian turns up unexpectedly with Jimmy dead in the car, believing she accidentally murdered him by dosing him with belladonna. She and Sally bury him beneath a lilac bush which is soon overteeming with unseasonal blooms. His malevolence bleeds from beyond the grave, putting all four women at each others’ throats until they can determine to come together to rid their lives of the influence (with a little help called in from the aunts).

The book isn’t called Practical Magic for nothing; the magic is far less overt in the book than in the movie, almost accidental in lots of ways, nothing more than folklore in others. But it definitely is still there, an undercurrent — whole sections of the book will go by that are just about life, plain and simple, and then one little thing will pop up to remind you that the Owens women are not like everyone else. But throughout it all, they are also still women — who grow, and make mistakes, and snipe at each other, and regret it.  There’s a lot in there about growing up — not just in the obvious ways, as we see both sets of sisters through the ever-tumultuous teenage years.

It was Gillian’s story, more than any other, that hit me this time around. Not that I’ve ever been as reckless as she is, but her lesson is one of recovering from damage and learning to trust. For both her and Sally, the romance is another understated theme — but an important one. Love catches them both by surprise, but when it hits them, it seems to do so like a ton of bricks. Things fall into place, despite the challenges, despite their damage, and when they do, both the women know it’s meant to be. And I find that inspiring.

Practical Magic is a great book and terribly compelling. It weaves reality in with the paranormal in a way that is so simple and elegant — no flash, no pretense, just human lives that happen to be touched by this little bit of something extra. Alice Hoffman is wonderful with creating complex, dynamic characters who are at once so special and so relatable. Highly recommended — especially if you like the movie. The book is different, as I said — less simple, less comical, with a more subdued supernatural element — but still definitely worth the try.

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