A few months ago, a friend of mine asked me if I had heard of an author named Catherynne M. Valente. When I said no, she then saw fit to rectify the situation and loaned me two of Valente’s novels. Deathless, obviously, was one of them.
I can’t believe that I hadn’t heard of Valente before that fateful day. The woman is a genius.
The plot of Deathless seamlessly mixes life in Russia around the time of World War II with folklore and legend. It’s mesmerising. I don’t know about you, but I never thought about how the human world could impact the realm of the fantastic. I thought they were two completely separate entities living in the same world. Kind of like trains running on parallel tracks. But of course there would be some overlap. Just … of course. And Valente fuses the realistic with the mythical beautifully.
In its most basic form, the story follows Marya Morevna and what happens to her after she realises the the bird-husband who comes for her when she turns 15 is somewhat different than the ones who came for her three elder sisters. She travels back and forth between Leningrad (or Petrograd or St. Petersberg, depending on which year Marya went back), and the land of the mythical. It’s incredibly well done and I loved every second of it.
I think what I loved most about the story was its language, though. Valente wrote Deathless like a folk tale; scenes repeated over and over again but with small details changed to drive the point home. And all with the innocent, child-like language of bedtime story fairytales. But, Deathless is bloody and lascivious and brash and the innocent language of the story doesn’t always fit the plot, but in a way that makes you feel the good kind of uncomfortable.
There’s also the fact that time floats along in a way so that you barely register that Marya is suddenly thirty-three until part-way through the book. Or that she’s somehow an old woman when you could have sworn five pages ago that she was still fifteen. Ordinarily, I don’t really pay attention to the timeline in novels. In most of the ones I’ve read, the timeline is a day, month, year, five years maximum. The passage of time in those stories simply lets the plot unfold. but in Deathless the timeline is not so much important as it is another way in which Valente shows us the magic in the mythical realms. You don’t notice it until the book makes you realise that more time has passed than you thought and you have to lean closer to the pages to ensure that you don’t miss the next jump in time. Only you do, because time is fickle like that.
When I finished the book, I immediately messaged my friend to debrief. She replied “So, emotional destruction?”, and I had to stop and think for a moment. I’ve only been emotionally devastated by one book in my time, and that was All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven. The end to Deathless is quieter. I think because Deathless follows Marya Morevna’s entire life, rather than just a segment of it. We see how she lived and who she loved and know that she actually lived her life. So when the end of the book comes, we’ve seen enough to know that this ending is simply the drawing of the curtain at the end of a marvellous play. But it leaves you feeling … something. Only you’re not quite sure what it is.
Deathless is magnificent. It simply is. And so, you probably won’t be surprised when I give it:
P.S. Valente is releasing a sort of companion novel to Deathless. It’s not a sequel, this is an important distinction. It’s called Matryoshka and is, according to Goodreads, “a retelling of Ivan and the Firebird set during the children’s evacuation of Leningrad.” It sounds amazing.