What’s it all about?:
A glorious retelling of the Russian folktale Marya Morevna and Koschei the Deathless, set in a mysterious version of St. Petersburg during the first half of the 20th century. A handsome young man arrives in St Petersburg at the house of Marya Morevna. He is Koschei, the Tsar of Life, and he is Marya’s fate. For years she follows him in love and in war, and bears the scars. But eventually Marya returns to her birthplace – only to discover a starveling city, haunted by death. Deathless is a fierce story of life and death, love and power, old memories, deep myth and dark magic, set against the history of Russia in the twentieth century. It is, quite simply, unforgettable.
What did I think?:
Here’s the thing – I’ve always tried to be completely honest in my reviews over the past few years. No, we’re not all going to like the same things but I do try not to be overly negative just for the sake of it and to find something positive or constructive to say about every book or short story I write about and I hope that comes across. Deathless was recommended to me by one of my favourite bookshops, Mr B’s Emporium Of Reading Delights where I’ve had two reading spas with my sister, Chrissi Reads. As soon as the bookseller mentioned it, I knew I had to have it, it sounded like such a “me” book. Based on Russian folklore and sprinkled with magical realism but intertwined with the horrors of Leningrad in the Second World War….these are pretty much some of my top buzz words to get me interested and excited about a book. To be perfectly honest, I’ve been absolutely dreading writing this review and have put it off for a couple of days now. By and large, I can appreciate what a gorgeous writer Catherynne M. Valente is and some of her prose is truly exquisite BUT I had a few problems with this novel that makes me struggle in my rating of it and I find myself quite torn about whether I liked it or not in the end.
It’s quite hard to describe what Deathless is about but I’ll do my best. Generally, it takes the old Russian folk tale of Marya Morevna and Koschei The Deathless, focusing on their love affair which is set around the time of the Second World War in Russia. Now I’m not familiar with the original tale so don’t profess to being an expert in the slightest but from what I’ve read around the novel, the author has almost developed her own fairy tale around these characters. When Marya becomes a young woman and is living in a house with many other families she sees her older sisters married off one by one as a bird falls from the trees outside and turns into a young man. Eventually, a man of her own comes for her and it is Koschei the Tsar of Life who takes her away, treats her a bit mean and after a while, persuades her to fall in love with him. As well as this story we have a magical quest that Marya has to go on, some interesting magical creatures that she befriends and a young man called Ivan who attempts to take her away and show her that there is a life available to her without Koschei.
I think that’s all I want to really say about the plot as, speaking frankly, there is a lot more that happens in the novel and considerably more content and symbolism connected to the war that makes this a heady mixture between fairy tale, magical realism and historical fiction. There were some parts of the narrative (particularly the fantastical elements) that I adored and I found myself nodding, thinking: “Yes, THIS is why I picked up this book!.” Then there were other things. A horny pestle and mortar (yes, you read that right), disjointed parts of the story that jumped around and just did not make any sense to me and worse of all, the relationship between Marya and Koschei which isn’t your best advertisement for a nice, healthy partnership. Unless you’re into sadomasochism, that is.
I didn’t feel like I connected with any of the characters – in fact, some of the decisions and the actions Marya takes me had me feeling rather disdainful and wondering what exactly her role in the whole novel was meant to be. I love a character with quirkiness, with darkness and with flaws don’t get me wrong, but everything about these characters just fell so flat, I couldn’t fathom how anyone could enjoy reading about them. I’m also not sure how well the author managed to pull off the connections with the atrocities happening in Leningrad in 1942. There is one particular chapter that almost broke my heart and it made such a compelling section of the novel but sadly, I felt like stellar sections like these were few and far between and I would have loved to have seen more passages like these. It did have those beautiful fairy tale qualities at many points and generally, I did enjoy these sections but when it came to the relationship between Marya and Koschei I’m afraid it just became too much for me, I didn’t like the way it was portrayed at all. Dominating her, force-feeding her until she vomits, beating her? Nah, that’s not my kind of fairy tale. Saying all this, Deathless has some stupendous reviews on GoodReads with an average rating of 4.05. If you’re at all intrigued maybe you should check it out for yourself as obviously a lot of people are seeing something I’m not. If you have read it though, I’d love to talk about it with you in the comments!
Would I recommend it?:
Star rating (out of 5):