Deathless – Communist Fairytale Creatures

It’s been a while since I read Deathless, a few months at this point. I really thought that I should still write up something on it, because the book was something rather interesting, as was the book I read after it, Lost Boy by Christina Henry, but that’s another story entirely. For now, let’s look at Deathless by Catherynne Valente.

Deathless by Catherynne Valente

The cover for Deathless

The story takes place in the alternative history version of Russia, taking place mainly in Leningrad at various points of its history, before and during the Second World War, and in Buyan, the “Country of Life”, the magical kingdom of Koschei the Deathless. The portrayals of the scenery in the book are most commonly given in the manner you would expect from a fairytale, giving everything a strange and exotic feel.

The book is written in a way very reminiscent of a fairytale. The rule of threes is used a lot, so events have a tendency of repeating three times before they are resolved. The descriptions used in the book are made using vocabulary that can sometimes feel a bit hard to grasp. The book, like The Bear and The Nightingale, uses a bunch of endearing versions of names and Russian terms and words in order to make the experience more exotic to the English reader. I feel Valente succeeded in her attempts quite well. The language and methods used took about two chapters or so to get used to in my case. I don’t have much to say about the sexuality depicted in the book other than that it exists and that it may not be suitable for the younger readers. It’s not pornographic, however.

What really makes the fairytale creatures particularly interesting is how they’ve embraced the Party rule and modernity: the domovoi form committees in their houses and instead of just doing petty tricks such as breaking cups and making items disappear from the house if they’re not given gifts, they report people to the Party for made up things, bringing the Communist authorities upon the offenders. Other fascinating characters and creatures such as Baba Yaga have also been adapted into this world quite marvelously.

The story itself is an interpretation of the Russian folktale of Koschei the Deathless, but with a magical, historical twist. The main character, Marya Morevna grows up in a poor family in a constantly changing Leningrad, living through various stages of the Communist revolution. She’s a bit special in that she is able to see deeper into the realities of the world than other people: she can see the magic in the world. She can see all kinds of magical creatures from the Russian folklore, such as the domovoi of her house. Her three sisters are married off to suitors, who Marya noticed to be birds falling from a tree, one by one, until eventually a man called Koschei Bessmertny, who she was not there to see as a bird, comes to take him away. The birds are a magic thing. It confused me a bit in the beginning too, so don’t worry. Marya continues growing as a person throughout the story, going through events both magical and mundane that challenge her relationships with the other characters in the story. Her love life in particular is challenged.

Ultimately Deathless is a love story, which is something I’m not very used to. I’m not very used to reading books with such colourful language and classic fairytale conventions, but I found the book very engaging. The communist twist to the classic fairytales was perhaps the main reason why I didn’t want to put the book down: I wanted to see more of the interpretations of classic lore. So I liked it a lot, and, despite feeling like the book could’ve ended the way it did, I’m looking forward to the next book now that it’s going to be a series.

I would like to recommend the book to anyone looking for an unusual love story that deals with sexuality and also works as an adventure with a lot of fantastical and historical elements mixed together. It should be noted, however, that the book can get rather graphic in its various depictions of violence and sexuality, so it might not be suitable for everyone.

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