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.
This is the weirdest book I have read in a very long time. Honestly, I’m not quite sure what it is that I just read, but I know that it was incredibly atmospheric and unputdownable and I’m not exactly sure what happened or what everything meant. I was icked out by the relationship between Koschei and Marya and I really really wanted them to be together. I was confused about so much but I feel like I understood a lot of what I was confused about on an instinctive, emotional level.
This book has a similar fairytale vibe to Katherine Arden’s Winternight Trilogy and Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, as well as some plot similarities as well. All three of them involve a somewhat strange, magical, stubborn girl being taken away or promised or generally involved with this mysterious, morally ambiguous immortal guy, all in an Eastern European setting. However, while there are lot of similarities, (and if you enjoyed either of those stories, I would definitely recommend giving this one a read) Deathless is very much its own beast.
One of the most unique things is the setting. This is a fairytale firmly set in the Soviet Union, and yet Catherynne M. Valente still manages to weave the otherworldly sense through the Leningrad-set parts of the story. There are communist domovoi and Stalinist dragons and horses that are cars and rusalka training to be nurses and birds turning into husbands and all other sorts of impossible things. Houses are made of flesh and hair and girls knit soldiers and fountains flow with blood. It’s really fucking weird, and I mean that in the absolute best way possible.
The other aspect of the story that I felt stood out was Marya and Koschei’s marriage. Initially, I was annoyed that we didn’t get more initial development of their relationship and, early on, I was very freaked out by the very masochistic aspect of their relationship. I especially felt that the power balance between the two of them was way too skewed in one particular direction and it just had me running around going ick, ick, ick, ick, no, no, no , but, as the book progresses, I really felt that dynamic was examined and deconstructed and flipped on its head really well, so after a certain point I was actually rooting for them.
That being said, I feel like I should mention that the story of Marya and Koschei’s marriage and relationship is about a more abstract, intellectual, almost allegorical story about how marriages and relationships can be. This isn’t some sort of romance-heavy tale with lots of building sexual tension and steamy scenes to get you all hot and bothered (although readers should be aware that there is sex). You could easily do a version of this along the lines of A Court of Mist and Fury, but that is not what this book is. It’s about power and marriage and love and home and probably a lot of other stuff I don’t quite understand as well.
My main quibble with this book is that there are a lot of aspects I just? don’t? get? Some of them I think I might get, but some of them I don’t. Maybe there are some things, like the sisters with their eggs, that happen in other Russian folk tales that are thrown in there because that’s how things work in this world, but maybe those same things are supposed to be metaphors and I just don’t get them. There’s a lot you could analyse and discuss here, and I think it would be really interesting to read this at different stages in my life and see what I connect with because, as an 18-year-old girl, I definitely felt like I connected and understood the early parts of the story, where Marya is around my own age, better than the later parts.
All in all, Deathless is one weird, confusing book, but it does weird and confusing with such style, panache, and intelligence that I couldn’t help being hooked. If fairytale-like fantasy, Russian folklore, or just sheer atmosphere are your thing, I wouldn’t hesitate to rush out and read this book.