You Should Read: DEATHLESS by Catherynne M. Valente

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?