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24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on 17 June 2011
Deathless is the latest from Catherynne M. Valente, and so, of course, it is a delight.

Having cast brilliant new light on One Thousand and One Nights in her two-volume opus The Orphan's Tales, and in The Habitation of the Blessed made a lurid and lyrical fantasy of the legends of 12th century Christian champion Prester John, Deathless sees Valente set her inimitable sights on Slavic folklore, with suitably stunning results. It begins:

"In a city by the sea which was once called St. Petersburg, then Petrograd, then Leningrad, then, much later, St. Petersburg again, there stood a long, thin house on a long, thin street. By a long, thin window, a child in a pale blue dress and pale green slippers waited for a bird to marry her." (p.15)

The child is Marya Morevna, here recast as a precocious young girl who whiles away her days dreaming of a husband, and better, brighter things. As well she should, for there are innumerable trials ahead: dark and troubling times for her city, for her family, and not least of all for Marya herself. However "the world is ordered in such a way that birds may be expected to turn into husbands at a moment's notice and no one may comment upon it at all," (p.23) so when "a great, hoary old black owl" (p.54) appears at the door of the long, thin house on the long, thin street as "a handsome young man in a handsome black coat, his dark hair curly and thick, flecked with silver, his mouth half-smiling, as if anticipating a terribly sweet thing," (p.55) and when that man asks after the hand of the girl who watches all from the long, thin window above, Marya's fate is sealed, and her dreams made real.

So it is that Marya comes to wed Koschei the Deathless, the Tsar of Life, who cannot die. "Fiendishly convenient things, wives. Better than cows. They'll love you for beating them, and work 'til they die." (p.113) Marya insists it will be different, for her... but perhaps the lady doth protest too much. So it is, in any event, that she comes to Buyan, Koschei's phantasmagorical kingdom beyond the sea, where the rivers run silver and buildings have skin. And so it is, one final time, that Marya meets Chairman Baba Yaga, Zemlehyed the leshy, Naganya the vintovnik who has a rifle scope for an eye, and the walking work of art that is Madame Lebedeva, whose make-up tends to match her cucumber soup.

I don't suppose Deathless is at 350 pages a particularly long novel, yet it seems an incredible length to prolong what is, at heart, a fairy tale, and Valente does so with such staunch authority and seeming ease as to stun. There is mystery and suspense in Deathless, wonder, awe and innocence; the form's every traditional demand is catered to, respectfully if not slavishly, and delicately refreshed whenever one trope or another appears in danger of tepidity. We stay in no one place for very long. The tone of Marya's tale darkens and lightens intermittently, as the years go by and, like a living being breathing, the Motherland rises and falls.

Valente finds particular success in her use of recurrence: in Deathless the rule of three is in full effect. Marya has three sisters, who marry three birds, who give her three gifts when she travels thrice nine kingdoms to escape Koschei's clutches and three friends who will never leave her otherwise. Beyond the reach of the three, there are moments - and moments aplenty - where prosaic phrases and sayings crop up once and again, to mean a different thing every time. Valente seems to mould the old anew with her every word, shifting metaphor and meaning and motif just so, so as to sustain a heady note usually so brief as to leave one wanting.

So too does Deathless leave one wanting, in the best possible sense. Dense and elusive, you will not likely find it an easy novel to read - rather the narrative is surreal and erotic and disturbing, often in the space of a single sentence - yet when you turn that last page, you will wish there was another, and another after that. Such is the joy of Catherynne M. Valente's fiction: her glorious use of language, her revelatory imagination, prose which will arrest you mid-breath. You could say Deathless wears a coat of many colours. It is a tapestry of new, old, borrowed and blue, and each fragment of the whole is as vibrant and integral as the last. Stunning stuff.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 25 April 2013
I read this book based on two things, firstly the author who also wrote The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (which I love) and secondly the title, which hooked me instantly.

I had no expectations of Deathless as I didn't read the blurb, but I was instantly captivated and downloaded the full book as soon as I reached the end of the sample on my kindle. Simply put I loved it, I know it will stay with me for a long time.

This book skirts the edges of fairy tales, folklore and myth for an adult audience (definitely not for children!) for all us grown ups who still have favourite stories as well as favourite books.

The central theme looks at the battle between life and death, and subsequently the inherent battle between good and evil.

Overall, a great central story underpinned by a thought provoking backdrop which has really pricked my interest in Russian folklore and legends as well as it's history.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 27 July 2012
This is one of the most moving, incredible, clever, touching, dark, perfect piece of brilliance ever written, I honestly do not have enough superlatives to describe it. Valente seamlessly mixes folklore and history to create a stunning novel. Read it and you won't be disappointed.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on 19 November 2012
Earlier this year, I cut my Valente-teeth novel-wise on The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. I fell completely in love with her writing and in the months since I've listened to two of her short stories on EscapePod and PodCastle, which were every bit as good and rich as The Girl Who... was. As I'm also quite fond of fairytale retellings, Deathless seemed a story I couldn't help but love. And seeming was truth, as Deathless was a stunning tale, which will stay with me for a while.

There will be mentions of elements of the story that might be considered spoilers for those unfamiliar with the Koschei mythos, so if you do not want to be spoiled please either skip ahead to the last paragraph of this review or click away!

The story is a wonderful retelling of The Death of Koschei the Deathless set in Russia in the first half of the twentieth century. It is a gorgeous mix of myth and history, mixing in several other Russian folk tales and all the political upheaval and cultural change Russia was embroiled in during the first fifty years of the twentieth century. I loved the metaphor of the colours of the birds and the uniforms they change into when they come for Marya's sisters, each mirroring the next step in Russia's revolution, it is an elegant way of alluding to the rapid political changes without giving a history lecture, but for those familiar with it, it's perfectly clear what is happening. Valente retains many traditional fairytale elements - the repetition of certain phrases and actions, things coming in threes, and the quest as a proof of worthiness - but at the same time subverts them by having Marya being the one with agency; she is making the choices, she chooses to go with Ivan, she chooses to go with Koschei, she chooses to accept Baba Yaga's challenges. She chooses to overpower Koschei in the same way he dominated her and reclaim her will. She goes from being a girl waiting for the magic to come for her to a woman creating her own magic.

The characters are wonderful, both those located in Buyan and later in Leningrad. Valente fills her world with many creatures springing from Russian folklore: leshy, vintovniks, domovoi, vila, russalki, magical horses, Baba Yaga and numerous other types of unnamed chyerti. There is a clear break in characters though, there are those of Marya's innocence if you will, Zemlehyed, Naganya, and Lebedeva, who are her friends and who help her prove herself worthy of Koschei, and there are those who come after, Kseniya, Sofiya, and Zvonek. I especially loved Kseniya and Sofiya, as I recognised them from a short story Valente originally published in Clarkesworld, and which I heard on PodCastle, called Urchins, while Swimming. And before and after there are Koschei and Ivan, dark and light, Marya's day husband and her night husband. They're as different as can be, but at the same time frighteningly similar. Marya loves both of them for different reasons and they are both crucial to her development. And always, always there's Marya. She's the heart of the tale and the star. I absolutely loved her. Her development is fantastic and while she isn't always very likeable, she's never boring.

As I've come to expect from Valente, Deathless is written in gorgeous prose. From the fairytale repetitions, to the stately cadence of the sentences, to the wistfulness of its ending, the writing is pitch-perfect. There is so much layering to the narrative, that you could reread this book several times and find new meaning in it every time. There are themes of love, of power, of politics, all boiling down to who rules? Who rules in life, in death, in love, and in power. In Deathless Marya explores both sides of the equation and discovers those you rule, rule you in turn. The only problem for me was the ending, which escaped me. Even after reading it several times, I'm still not sure whether my interpretation of its meaning is the one Valente meant me to make. Then again, that might have been just her intention.

Deathless is a book made for reading aloud, for reading to someone. It is a book made for rereading and finding more to love each time. Valente is a fantastic storyteller who never fails to captivate the imagination and to capture the heart. Deathless has cemented her as a must-read author for me and the book is a shoe-in for my top favourite reads this year. If you've never read any work by Catherynne M. Valente, do yourself a favour and run and get this book. If you have read Valente's work you'll hardly need convincing by me to go and read this gorgeous story.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.
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on 2 March 2014
The tale of Koschei the Deathless and Marya Morevna is one of the great classics of Slavic folklore. The history of Russia in the early twentieth century is one of great change, war, and revolution. Catherynne Valente has sewn these together in such a way that their events parallel and shade into each other, giving a pleasant tinge of reality to the folklore and a refreshing scent of the supernatural to the sometimes-grim 'real world'. If you are unfamiliar with either, each stands on its own. If you know one or the other, its sometimes surprising reappearance in parallel serves as a reminder that the two worlds are not as separate as they seem.

This tale is enchanting to read, but its lyrical style almost begs to be read aloud. It isn't a childhood fairy tale for comfortable repetition; it's a tale to be told around a travellers' campfire, or in a dacha while the snow falls silent all around.

If I had a criticism, it would be the sometimes abrupt jumps between acts. Most of these transitions are well-linked, both in the text and via quotations from an earlier poet, but occasionally the reader is left with a warp of loose ends while the fabric of the story weaves a seemingly separate piece, and while they are effectively woven together later on it can be somewhat disconcerting.

Finally, I leave with a warning, or a recommendation. The story is written in several acts, each of which is made up of several chapters. Don't rush it: take the time to read an act at a time, rather than breaking after each chapter, and you will appreciate more its slow-burning nature.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 13 February 2013
I don't think I have ever read a more beautiful or magical book than Deathless! Though I found the ending slightly disappointing, I feel that I will learn to like and understand it the more I reread this book (and believe me, it deserves plenty of rereading!) Deathless has definitely earned a place on my list of favourite books.
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on 23 March 2015
What a dark and beautiful story! Absolutely swept away by such wild imagination about life and death, love and despair, how we view life as children and how we eventually see our world as it really is as adults. This fantasy world is something we can all relate to, whether some of us are waiting for a bird to fall from a tree and turn into a handsome man to marry you, or the tsar of life to kidnap you and whisk you to a far away land where everything is alive and vibrant, or where you are constantly trying to find meaning or purpose in your life, a realisation of what you actually want. Then there is also the idea of death, to fear it and want to fight to be alive...or accept it as part of life and see the beauty in death as well. Poignant and haunting. Come bahbuska, let us drink vodka and hunt the fire bird, let us reminisce the loves, the deaths and the magic that surrounded us!
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on 17 April 2015
Bought this for my Kindle and then upgraded with the discounted audio-book which I am now about half-way through and thoroughly enjoying it. The style is like a traditional fairytale without any of the Bowdlerisation of the Victorian era for the original Grimm tales. That is to say, this is life as it is lived (in a world where magic exists). Adult and sexual references are there when necessary, without being gratuitous. Nothing explicit though. The audio-book reading is excellent, too, with (to my uneducated ear) excellent pronunciation of the Russian character and place names.

I've heard many short stories by Catherynne M Valente in podcasts such as Clarkesworld, and not all of them are to my taste, but Deathless is one that certainly is.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 5 January 2015
Just before finishing this book, I skimmed through some of the other low-star ratings on Goodreads. It seems that I'm in agreement with everyone here - it's not Valente, it's me; the book is so beautifully written, I just couldn't follow it/find it in me to care about the characters. I didn't see any mentions of other books by Valente, but I loved Silently and Very Fast and certainly enjoyed The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. I approached Deathless with absolutely no trepidation, because the reviews were mostly glowing, and when I first heard of <i>Silently and Very Fast</i> it was in the context of <i>Deathless</i> being so good that reading other books had become impossible because nothing could live up to Valente's prose.

But what is there beyond prose? This book is based on a Russian fairy tale, which initially sounds very interesting. However, it doesn't take long before I found myself wondering if I was supposed to have known that fairy tale in intimate detail before I started - or at least the bare bones of it. When writing for a (prdominantly American?) Anglophone audience, I think it would have been safer to assume that most people wouldn't know the fairy tale, but I felt as if I was expected to know all the twists and turns, and thus found myself thinking "hang on, why did that happen?" every other chapter. I do have a vague knowledge of Russian history from A-Level (which was ten years ago, so I did have to look up some names), although we skipped over the war conduct to focus on how terrible Stalin was. This means that the bits which were based on Russian history, rather than myth, I could follow and enjoyed a lot more. On the other hand, I did find myself wondering what the point of connecting this myth to twentieth century Russian history was - if it said anything particularly astounding about that history, or helped me come to grips with it. I am left with the feeling that it was generally pretty rubbish in Russia in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, which to be honest I knew already.

At some point, perhaps when I've revised my Russian history, read some Pushkin, read some more Valente, and perhaps when I'm a little less stressed out by work, I will try to read this book again and see if I get anything more out of it.

Also, if you do know your Russian myth/history, it's apparently much better than Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts. I would say that I followed the plot of that one a little better, but this one had much more beautiful prose.
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on 17 March 2013
Marya Morevna is one tough heroine. She's a dreamer, a surviver, a lover, a fighter. She's the perfect match for Koschei the Tzar of Life. Let's talk about Koschei... wow, I was completely in awe of him and his kingdom. He's not like any man you'll ever find in a book. His emotions were so extreme that sometimes he was scary... but he could be sweet too. There's a scene where he takes care of Marya when she's sick that made me smile, he was so tender, so careful, so different from the scene where he bites her lip and makes her bleed... Wonderful book, a mix of Russian folklore and modern times (early 20th century).
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