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Synopsis: Koschei the Deathless is to Russian folklore what giants or wicked witches are to European culture: the villain of countless stories which have been passed on through story and text for generations. Valente’s 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 peasant girl 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, that will bring Russian myth to life in a stunning new incarnation. via Amazon
Let me be up front and tell you that I won this novel from Valente herself, last year, in a Twitter contest that basically amounted to stalking her over the Internet. Or, to put it another way, by identifying what hotel she was staying at from a picture of a stuffed leopard. Being the fastest at googling images of hotel pools near the convention her Livejournal post from the week before said she was attending won me the book.
Which is three ways to give you the same information – that I won the book instead of buying it – and you can decide for yourself which interpretation works best for you. In the same way, DEATHLESS is an interpretation of classic Russian myth, mixed with factual history, and woven together with the story of a willful girl who likes to be spanked. It doesn’t pretend to be an entirely original story, and you’ll be disappointed if you expect it to be, but if you can read it as a retelling, and look for where it is the best and prettiest retelling possible, you’ll find the beauty of Valente’s book.
It is one of those novels that is so well crafted you don’t see where the seems were sewn together. It takes bits from a couple of different places, and you’d expect it to be jarring in spots, but it isn’t. It’s possible to sit down with it one evening, read all the way though, and put it down at the end without having been kicked out of the story by bad writing or a missed connection with its disparate pieces. I know, because I did just that, reading it through in one shot. It’s lovely and it’s good and it’s absolutely worth reading.
My only complaint is that I may know too much to be the right audience for this book. Because I grew up on fairy tales (Russian stories being some of the best and most-read because they had the best art) and my favorite time in history is the period between 1900 and WW2, and in college I studied world history and fairy tale structure and art and cooking and … I’m the wrong audience for this book because nothing in it surprised me. It didn’t feel novel, and I suspect it should have. For me it was like looking over photos from a trip I’d taken a few years ago and finding that the camera had better resolution than I remembered – there’s nothing new in the images and I have a comfortable familiarity with the subject matter, but they’re prettier than I’d expected.
If you’re not familiar with the history and fantasy that Valente mixes in this book, I think you’ll enjoy it very much. If you are, pick it up anyway, and read it on a cold night when you’re wrapped up in a blanket with a hot cup of soup nearby. It will feel to you then like listening a much-loved story being retold to you by a favorite grandmother.
I don’t think we give enough credit to the amount of work it takes to write a book like that, by the way. In a thousand different little ways, DEATHLESS could have failed, and it doesn’t. Familiar or not, it’s lovely. How often can you say that?
This story was originally published last year in Southern Fried Weirdness: Reconstruction, an anthology to benefit tornado relief (click on the link to buy it).
The tree grew up around her as she sat at its base, day after day. It had been a sapling when her parents bought the house by the creek, and it made the perfect backrest for Annabelle-the-child. She sat very still, her chubby three-year-old hands clasped together, arms tight around her knees, as her father sat alone on the creek bank. He waited for a fish to appear on his line, and she waited with him.
“I don’t want you sitting all day out on the ground,” her momma had said after the second day faded into evening and Annabelle once again walked into the kitchen with a dirty bottom.
“Yes, Momma,” she’d replied quietly as her momma brushed her off with a hand broom and quick, hard strokes. Her momma sighed.
“There’s no use. That dress is ruined.” Annabelle was given a hot bath, a cold supper, and sent to bed without a story. She wrapped her arms around Mr. Bunny and listened to her parents’ raised voices float up through the floor boards until she fell asleep. The next day Daddy couldn’t fish because he had to work on the house, as it was “in no fit state for people to see,” Annabelle’s momma had said, and there were church people that wanted to come over for a house warming. Annabelle liked the church people, who’d come over to their old apartment with ambrosia salad and fried chicken and Mrs. Cramble, who wore flower print dresses and had thick, soft arms, would give her great big hugs and extra helpings on her plate, and Momma never complained. Annabelle followed her Daddy around all afternoon, holding the tin bucket with his hammer and nails in it, and when he needed one or the other, she’d lift it up as high as she could, and he’d reach down into the bucket and take what he needed. Sometimes he’d smile at her too. (more…)
I find myself wondering what genre Aimee Bender’s work falls into. Perhaps not all of her writing, but this collection of short stories. It is literary in the sense that she writes with an eye to the experience of having read her work, in addition to telling a story. There are elements of weird fiction, fantasy, science fiction, erotica, and other hints of genre in the stories, as if her writing is a bumper car and she’s bouncing off the edges of genre, trading paint. There are whispers of genre, where she never comes right out with it.
Like Kelly Link and Karen Joy Fowler, nearly all of her protagonists are women. Is it feminist fiction, then? I don’t think so, no more than anyone else who writes a female main character could be labeled as such. Her women are by turns lost and needy and heartbroken and seeking male approval and inappropriately sexual (and, also, sexy and smart and loving and warm and witty). It’s a collection of stories about a range of people who happen to be, mostly, women.
There is an intimate quality to Bender’s stories, as if we’re being let in on secrets. We’re reminded of the time that we, too, were empty or lost or aching to be touched, and it seems that we can only be reminded of those feelings by someone who has been there as well. Bender reads as a comrade. A fellow wounded soldier, marching on, because the only way is forward.
I think Bender falls under that umbrella we’re calling “magic realism” these days. You can determine the difference between magic realism, fantasy, and paranormal*, by the reaction of others to the weird events which are occurring. In a fantasy setting, magic occurs naturally. It may not be everywhere, but the world at large is not surprised by its existence. It is a thing that happens.
A paranormal or weird fiction story also features creatures or powers or events, such as a haunting or a mutant child or a werewolf running loose. However, society deems this strange. Government agencies get involved, or the townspeople hide the weird out of fear of reprisal. Everyone knows this should not be.
In a magic realism story, a weird thing happens, and everyone thinks it’s wrong, but no one does anything about it. The weird event serves to teach the main character something or to unsettle the reader. It doesn’t change the world but it may change the life of one little girl.
Bender’s collection is full of these stories. A woman whose boyfriend devolves, taking the evolutionary path back to the ocean. The authorities don’t get involved. He isn’t taken by a research center. His friends and coworkers stop calling to ask about him because she asks them to stop – simple as that. She watches him become ape, baboon, turtle, salamander, and yet, the story isn’t about his change. It’s about her discovery of what she can live with, and what she can’t – a theme I see time and time again in Bender’s work. In another example, a woman gives birth to her own (elderly, previously dead) mother, and the obstetrician, once he gets over his surprise, sends them all home. The story here is about letting go of the people you’ve lost, and the consequences of not letting go enough. It isn’t about the impossibility of having given birth to a full grown woman. That’s just the thing that happens in the midst of everything else.
I loved this collection. It’s another one that I have to pause while reading, to come up for air. Each story is its own moment and has to be felt as an individual experience. They’re moving, carrying themselves forward, taking you along for a stroll. You can’t stop the effect it will have on you once the story has started, and I’m certain that’s a good thing. It’s important to be powerless in the face of your fiction sometimes. We need to let go. It refreshes our brains and reboots our spirits and we can carry on with our own lives, a little changed, a little bit bigger than we were before. “The Girl In The Flammable Skirt” is a walk worth taking.
* I would argue that you can use “urban fantasy” instead of “paranormal” in most cases.
I read something new because I liked a previous book enough to get another by the same author, or because I want something fun and quick enough to shut my brain off for a few hours and the cover (or blurb) suggest to me that this book will be worth the risk, or because it was suggested to me as a “must read” by someone I trust (though there are very few of those). Fowler’s collection of short stories was one that was recommended to me, and I am now in the position of both appreciating the suggestion and passing it along to you.
I’d read at least one of her stories online, the one about the woman whose daughter is dating the vampire, which is called “Younger Women” and can be read online for free. That story was wonderful. That story isn’t in this book, having been written after, but you can see the bones of it in what Fowler has done before. The subtlety of a story told without any unnecessary bits shoved in to make it this genre or that. The hint of sadness that is visible but presented as if the bearer isn’t sure yet whether they have reason enough to be sad, and are leaving up to you to decide for them.
There are times that she takes inspiration from other stories, mostly fairy tales, but instead of retelling them she shows you the most important moments of someone who was only peripherally affected by the story you might have heard before. “Halfway People” does this, with its swan brother and the woman who knew him for a short time; “The Dark” does it too, with plague and rats and the piper that always hangs around where those things intersect.
Some of the tales she retells aren’t yet fantastical enough to interest Grimm but are, at least in the US, just as well known. Fowler gives John Wilkes Booth a literary half-life with both “Booth’s Ghost” and “Standing Room Only”, the second being (I think) her most “genre” story of the bunch, when you figure out the twist I don’t plan to spoil for you.
According to Wikipedia there is some controversy over whether Fowler’s “What I Didn’t See” deserved the Nebula award it won, on the grounds that it was neither fantasy nor science fiction and therefore didn’t meet the genre requirements for the award. I can’t say whether it should have won under that criteria, because it didn’t feel like either of those things to me, but I have been thinking lately that both sf and fantasy are settings, not genres, and real genres are things like “adventure” and “romance” and “thriller” and “alternate history political intrigue”. If that’s the case, then it doesn’t much matter what the setting is because the story is moving and beautiful and questioning its own sadness, as Fowler’s stories tend to do.
And if it must be genre, in this instance, we can call it alternate history (because what is told is a fiction that never happened exactly that way in real life) or feminist pulp adventure tale (because it is most definitely that) or literary fantasy, because what happens in the story is not magical but is fantastical. Good enough for me.
I liked every story in the book. I thought “The Pelican Bar” was cruel in that it revealed something heartless and yet unsurprising – the way people can abandon the children they don’t understand. It was brilliant in that it didn’t falter in the telling. No words out of place or misused, no sentiment awkwardly stuffed in without need. But then I think all of her stories are the same way, which is why I adore Fowler’s writing, and this book, and these stories.
“Always” made sense, again. We must all have those moments where we slow down, quiet our internal selves, and feel disconnected from the rest of humanity. How else can a story about living forever seem so familiar? “The Marianas Islands” had the same sense of comfortable relation, as if the narrator is a distant cousin telling family tales we’ve heard before but weren’t there to experience first hand.
My favorite, in that it was heartbreaking and immediately grabbed me and made me cry, was the final piece in the book, “King Rat”. It reads as if it’s non-fiction, and I know that I could look it up (the Internet is full of facts like these) but I wouldn’t want to know if it wasn’t.
Reading the book took most of a day because, like Aimee Bender and Kelly Link’s work, Fowler’s stories are too much to read without pausing in between like a marathoner grabbing water every few miles. He’d never make it to the end without refreshing himself and neither should you barrel through a collection like this without stopping to let your brain breathe. At 200 pages, it’s hardly long, but certainly long enough.
Go, read. I’d hate for you to have missed out on knowing what it feels like to have read it.
* Note: I bought my copy from Small Beer Press, and you should too.
It’s worth repeating: I love having friends who read because they introduce me to wonderful new writers, all of the time. Today’s great author is M. Rickert, suggested to me by the same person who gave me J.G. Ballard and Kelly Link and Ted Chiang and others. I read four of her stories, and here’s what I thought:
“Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment: One Daughter’s Personal Account,” Fantasy & Science Fiction, Oct/Nov 2008: The pure and beautiful devotion of a young woman to an ideal that just happens to want her mother dead. The girl, the narrator, speaking to us as if revealing her thoughts to a journal she suspects will someday be read, tells us about just one aspect of her life: the executions of women who had abortions at some point in the past. By describing how this one part of society affects every part of her life, the story of a future America gone mad unfolds. Simply, easily, as if it is fact, as if it is true, and we can’t do anything now but watch it happen. (more…)