Review: Catherynne M. Valente – Deathless

People have warned me of this book’s heartbreaking ending. Well, it was heartbreaking from beginning to end and I’m afraid this will be one of my less coherent, more gushing reviews. If my girly outbursts of excitement and love for this story make you interested enough to pick up the book, then my work here is done.

by Catherynne M. Valente

Published by: Tor, 2011
ISBN: 0765326302
Hardcover: 352 pages

My rating: 9,5/10

First sentence: Woodsmoke hung heavy and golden on the short wheat, the earth bristling like an old, bald woman.

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.


Catherynne M. Valente was born in a lake, grew up in fairyland, and brought home from there an enchanted quill with which she pens her stories. Or so I’ve decided, at least. After having enjoyed her books for children more than I ever thought possible, I took a peek into her work for adults. What a journey this has been. Initially, I wanted to go slow, knowing how this author’s words want to be savored and enjoyed, melting on your tongue. But as I read and read, I couldn’t ever find a good place to stop. With barely the absolutely necessary stops (bathroom, food) I raced through this magical tale and I still can’t find the words to describe its wonder.

Marya Morevna sits by the window and sees a bird falling from a tree, turning into a handsome man who whisks away her oldest sister. This happens twice more with her other sisters, only Marya is left birdless. However, one day Koschei shows up on her doorstep, demanding to take away the girl in the window, and Marya follows him into his world of vodyanoy (didn’t I just meet those in Perdido Street Station?) and rusalkas, firebirds and Baba Yaga.

deathless alternateThis is the part where one half of my brain demands to write in ALL CAPS and simply shout at you how awesome and brilliant and astoundingly beautiful this story is. Madame Lebedeva and, oh Zemelhyed who moved the earth and water, and how heartbreaking is Koschei? The mythology is so intertwined with the real world and the real threats in Soviet Russia, I found myself wondering whether I’m one foot in Russia and one foot in Koschei’s land, or simply somewhere in between, without straight borders.

It broke my heart. Over and over. While at first, I noticed (and delighted in) a certain Pan’s Labyrinth like quality about the story, it soon drew me in deeper and did exactly what a good story is supposed to do. Made me feel ALL THE THINGS!

[…] because it’s boring to keep telling stories where people just get born and grow up and get married and die. So they add strange things in, to make it more interesting when a person is born, more satisfying when they get married, sadder when they die.

Cat Valente spirited me away into a land where dreams live on knuckles and deaths can be hidden away. Instead of gushing on about her prose – and in case you don’t know yet: it’s sheer perfection – here are some quotes to illustrate just how firm a grip on her craft this woman has.

And so Olga went gracefully to the estates of Lieutenant Gratch, and wrote prettily worded letters to her sisters, in which her verbs built castles and her datives sprung up like well-tended roses.

I met so many strange creatures in these pages, horses that talk, the Tsar of Death, Baba Yaga (did I mention how awesome she is?), and let’s not forget some Stalinist house goblins.

“Marya Morevna! Don’t you know anything? Girls must be very, very careful to care only for ribbons and magazines and wedding rings. They must sweep their hearts clean of anything but kisses and theater and dancing. They must never read Pushkin; they must never say clever things; they must never have sly eyes or wear their hair loose and wander around barefoot, or they will draw his attention!”

The further along I got in this book, the more I felt like I was within a dream. Its magic swept me completely off my feet and if my memory will not fail me completely until the end of it, I will now go on record and declare this one of my favorite reads of the year. That’s how fantastic this book was. It is one of the best books I have ever read. Period. I’m sure it can take on whatever I tackle in 2013.

Did everything that had magic have teeth?

But of course, war doesn’t only rage in Leningrad. The magic world is fighting a war all of its own and Koschei and Marya are right in the middle of it. Sometimes, the symbolism made me weep, sometimes the characters’ actions. I had not expected to grow to love Koschei as much as I did. There were a few key scenes that honestly brought tears to my eyes, not necessarily because sad things happen (although many do, don’t let me deceive you) but simply because Cat Valente has worked us up to such powerful moments where emotion just bursts out of the pages. If it was neither the characters nor the story nor the symbols strewn about this tale, it was the sheer beauty of her writing and the way certain sentences hit home so hard.

You will always fall in love, and it will always be like having your throat cut, just that fast.

Already I look back at this story with yearning and a sense of wonder only Catherynne Valente can pour into paper, packed between two covers.

“I am no one; I am nothing. I am a blank paper on which you and your magic wrote a girl.”

THE GOOD: OMG this is so beautiful, it tore out my heart and made me jealous, why can’t I write like that, how fantastic is this woman’s brain, seriously? I love everything about this.
THE BAD: Seriously?
THE VERDICT: I don’t feel qualified to sum up my feelings about this book in one sentence. Just go read it.

RATING: 9,5/10  Almost perfect – leaning towards a 10

Just like Genevieve Valentine’s Mechanique, I will re-read this soon and if it holds up, this will be turned into a 10/10.

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