Monday, 24 March 2014

Book Review: Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente

Title: Deathless
Author: Catherynne M. Valente
Genre: Fantasy
Date Published: 29th March 2011
Publisher: Tor Books
Ranking: 3 out of 5 stars

Goodreads Summary: Koschei the Deathless is to Russian folklore what devils or wicked witches are to European culture: a menacing, evil figure; the villain of countless stories which have been passed on through story and text for generations. But Koschei has never before been seen through the eyes of Catherynne Valente, whose modernized and transformed take on the legend brings the action to modern times, spanning many of the great developments of Russian history in the twentieth century.

Deathless, however, is no dry, historical tome: it lights up like fire as the young Marya Morevna transforms from a clever child of the revolution, to Koschei’s beautiful bride, to his eventual undoing. Along the way there are Stalinist house elves, magical quests, secrecy and bureaucracy, and games of lust and power. All told, Deathless is a collision of magical history and actual history, of revolution and mythology, of love and death, which will bring Russian myth back to life in a stunning new incarnation

Why I read it: I thought I was fairly well-read when it comes to mythology. Reading The Secret History of Moscow last year made me realise I wasn’t, so I searched for more novels inspired by Russian myth and discovered Deathless. It’s been on my TBR pile ever since.

My Review:

I’m not quite sure what to think of Valente’s Deathless. It’s a feminist retelling of a classic tale, this time set in the Soviet Union under Stalin. Sounds fascinating, right? And it was, at least to start – after the first half of the book, I found myself increasing disinterested. The writing was stunning, but the plot kept floundering. 

Part one begins with Marya’s childhood, balancing history and myth extremely well. Marya sees her older sisters married off to birds, one by one, in a passage that could be lifted straight from a fairytale. However, the long pale house she inhabits is firmly settled in Russia – right down to the committee of domovye (house elves) that are fervent supporters of the changing world, and revel in their new-found ability to make trouble via paperwork.

Later in the novel, Koschei spirits Marya away to his realm. I loved the setting here. We see forests of firebirds, fountains of blood, houses constructed of living skin, magic galore, and of course the ever-present influence of the Party. There is also Marya and Koschei’s compelling relationship to enjoy: dark and passionate, with strong S&M elements. It’s rare to see such relationships represented well (or at all) in fiction, and I especially liked how the dominant partner shifted back and forth throughout the novel.

And yet.

As the book progresses, it becomes clear that there’s no overarching theme to the parts. Marya grows older – something I appreciated, as she is portrayed as a formidable yet flawed woman. Yet her days fly by with Koschei, with Ivan, with herself, her sisters, her house. She is buffeted by historical events. There is a war, including the grim Siege of Leningrad. And there is still magic. But the power of the novel seemed to slip away, and at times, the lack of plot tempted me to give up on it entirely. (I’m glad I didn’t, if only for the writing.)

Basically? This was a great novel with significant flaws.

The Cover: Surprisingly, I don't have much to say about this one. Aside from that it's well designed and representative of the novel, and I like it.


  1. You know historical fiction/fantasy when it comes to times of war and such just don't do it for me. I love Valente but I saw this one and though no this once not for me. No overall theme either? that would be an issue for me its like hello in which direction to I go!?

    Do you tend to read all the books by an author that you love?

    1. I do, but if I suspect I'm not going to like it I'll source a library copy or borrow from a friend rather than buying straight out.

      I do want to read more Valente though. I seriously loved the first half of this book, and I keep hearing good things about her others.

  2. This was my first Valente book and at the time I really liked it, but having read others of hers I wonder if it would hold up. I think I was a bit in love with the writing, having not read a lot of fantasy that was so lyrical at the time.

    1. Well, the writing was good...! So did you like her other books then? Pretty curious about them now.