Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente
We read Valente’s sci-fi novella Silently and Very Fast in the Science Fiction and Fantasy class I took at uni, and to my shame I must admit I missed the point entirely. However, I decided that this was possibly because sci-fi is often beyond me, and I wanted to give Valente’s fantasy a shot. When our teacher talked about Deathless, I knew it was what I wanted to try.
The thing is, when I grew up, my dad would read me a lot of Russian literature, both classics and children’s literature. Some of the children’s literature included material about Koschei the Deathless, and he is one of the main characters of this novel.
The main main character, however, is Marya Morevna, who from a young age catches glimpses of the magical world and who is destined to marry Koschei. The magical element is phenomenal: the very first chapter, “Three Husbands Come to Gorokhovaya Street”, is possibly my favourite of all the chapters, as it captures the same air of charm and enchantment that I remember from my childhood. Valente uses fairy tale magic of the Russian flavour throughout the novel, and it is what most draws me to this novel.
But it’s not all just fairy tales and enchantment. Deathless is also a harsh novel. Although I still, a few days later, haven’t quite wrapped my mind around it, I read it as a story about never belonging and indecision. Marya doesn’t seem to be able to make up her mind whether she belongs in the magical world or our real world, and this is because she does not fully belong in either.
The title is also interesting. Ostensibly, at least in my mind, it refers to Koschei, but we never see anything from his point of view (unless I forget something). Sure, his deathlessness is certainly recurring and carried throughout the novel, but as Marya is so strongly the protagonist, the implication seems to be that the title refers to her – or to something larger, such as the fact that life goes on, in cycles, the world doesn’t stop and is in that way deathless, no matter what happens to us. The very end of the novel supports this view, but I’m not going to say more about it, because spoilers.
I give Deathless four stars because it is a beautiful novel, gorgeous writing, and offers so much to think. The reduction of a star comes from the fact that at times it lost its pull on me and I couldn’t see where it was going and how something was relevant, but I actually suspect this is one of those books you can read over and over and keep finding new connections, new meanings, new nuances. Whether I’ll reread this remains to be seen. Hopefully I will feel like I might be able to appreciate it better in a few years. Meanwhile, I’m more than willing to try more Valente.