The World Behind the Stove: A Review of Valente’s “Deathless”
There is no such thing as death. Everyone knows that. It has become tasteless to repeat it.
So begins “Poem Without a Hero” by Russian poet Anna Akhmatova and the first part of Cathernne M. Valente’s 2011 novel, “Deathless.”
“Deathless” is, first and foremost, an expansive retelling of the Russian folktale “The Death of Koschei the Deathless” as collected by Alexander Afanas’ev in “The Red Fairy Book.” But the novel does much more than reiterate the same elements found in the traditional tale. Valente’s prose and use of language is so beautiful in this novel that the word “beautiful” doesn’t begin to do it any justice. The world that is created in “Deathless” simply cannot be compared in its splendor to any other fantasy novel I’ve ever read.
“Deathless” takes place predominantly between Marya’s “real” world (1910s-1940s Leningrad), to the world of the Country of Life, which is a world within the world we know. The Country of Life is ruled by Koschei the Deathless, the Tsar of Life. Koschei’s many brothers and sisters, such as the Tsar of Birds and the Tsaritsa of Salt, appear throughout the novel to move characters along and influence the outcome of events, much like the Greek gods and goddesses of Greek mythology do.
The main antagonist, if one can be identified, is Koschei’s brother Viy, who is the Tsar of Death. In the Country of Life, Koschei is locked in a never-ending war with Viy. Marya, who is still human though she has become the Tsaritsa of Life, struggles to adapt to fighting this endless war. The entire plot of “Deathless” revolves around Marya’s struggle to fully become part of the Country of Life and thus become deathless like her husband. She wants to become a part of the fairy tales she loved so much as a child and leave the horrors of the “real world” behind.
“Deathless” is much more than just a retelling of a fairy tale or the story of an unconventional romance between folk characters. It crosses many boundaries, mixing and matching elements from a wide variety of genres. It utilizes the best parts of each of these genres and is easily the best fantasy novel I have read since Diana Wynne Jones’s “Howl’s Moving Castle” in 2011.
“Deathless” is a war novel grounded in the historical Russia from the 1910s to the 1940s, that follows different stages of Russian political upheaval. The events of the “real world” are paralleled in the fictional Country of Life, and the fairy tale characters both interact with the “real world” and are greatly affected by the events of it. The fairy tale characters are forced to adapt as the Russian people are forced to adapt, which is Valente’s way of pointing out how stories shift and change over time while still retaining the essence of what they are.
“Deathless” is also a mystery novel and a science fiction novel. Naganya the vintovnik, for example is essentially a little steamrobot. And the ongoing questions of where Koschei keeps his death and which wars are which are very much mysteries that the reader wants to solve just as much as Marya does.
For me, the romance between the folktale’s traditional main character, Koschei the Deathless, and Marya Morevna, who is from another version of the Russian folktale “Marya Morevna and the Death of Koschei the Deathless,” is the most appealing part of the plot and subplots. Both characters are strong personalities who can be rather unpredictable at times, and they greatly influence the dark feel of the novel.
Another interesting aspect of “Deathless” is that each part opens with whole poems and parts of poems by Akhmatova. While reading “Deathless” you will notice how influential Akhmatova’s lines are to the novel. Famous Russian works and even other common Russian fairytale characters, such as the traditional “old witch” character of Baba Yaga, who makes countless appearances across Russian folklore, clearly heavily influence Valente.
If, however, there is one thing I’d want to celebrate and emphasize about Valente’s novel – it’s the language. Valente’s prose is infused with a magic all its own, with beautifully written lines such as: “You will always fall in love, and it will always be like having your throat cut, just that fast.” The line refers to the traditional Russian character Ivan the Fool, who inevitably falls in love with Marya Morevna, and implies that the heart of the story will always be the same no matter how the details change.
I would highly recommend this novel to any reader who enjoys elements of magic and fantasy. Valente merges history with fantasy in a way I’ve never experienced before. “Deathless” is aptly titled for it is easily just that: timeless and deathless.