Deathless is a retelling of the Russian folktale Koschei the Deathless. I knew next to nothing about Russian folktales when I started this novel. Now that I’ve finished it, I’ve realized that this is something that I really need to fix.
The novel follows Marya from girlhood to adulthood. Over the course of her life she experiences the changing landscape of Russia, while encountering creatures of folklore and mythology. Marya stands on the brink of the old world versus the new. The novel asks the question: can the stories of the old world translate into the newly growing modern one?
For a novel obsessed with story telling what I loved the most was its commentary on the act of story telling and folk tales.
We turn on a track, around and around; we march in step; we act out the same tales, over and over, the same set of motions, while time piles up like yarn under a wheel. We like patterns. They’re comforting. Sometimes little things change…. But it’s not different, not really.”
Deathless is aware that it is a retelling of a story, and is constantly referencing the process of storytelling both in its narrative and in its structure. The novel is meta, without forcefully being so. Deathless argues that stories are part of our identity and that their changes to form and character subtly reflect changes to ourselves.
Deathless merges multiple styles: the repetitive fairy tale, a circular narrative, and the jumping of perspectives and of time to tell the story of Marya and Koschei. The perspective jumping happened so rarely, that when it does it s deeply unsettling. The reader is tied mostly to Marya, but there are segments told from the perspective of a separate narrator and from some side characters who take up the narration when our main character is unable too.
The only character who we never truly come to know is the Tsar of Life itself: Kosechei. He’s a mystery that our main character is trying to unravel, and the only way she will be able too is by coming into herself.
My favourite character in the novel was Baba Yaga. Where all the other characters have rigid roles and dialogue (they are in fact just completing their specific functions in the story), Baba Yaga is the wild card. She’s the character who is aware of the cycles of story that traps them and in a way is able to transgress them. She both performs her function to the plot (she’s a quest giver) while managing to subvert it at the same time. Other than that she has some of the best lines in the entire story. I love her nicknames for Marya as the novel progresses, my favourite being: “Almost-soup”.
War and death, as one can guess plays and important role in this novel both narratively and thematically. Russia is goes through multiple wars, one internal (the revolution, the afore mentioned old world versus new world) and one external (the Second World War). Koschei is in his never ending war against the Tsar of Death, one which he is doomed to lose. As the state of Russia falls apart, so does Koschei’s realm. As the real world crumbles, so does the fantasy world.
Overall, I did enjoy Deathless, even if it was a little slow going at sometimes. Other than getting distracted by the style I found it a great read, and it was nice to see something a little bit different than the usual fairy tale/ folk tale retellings that have been saturating the market these days. I couldn’t help thinking that this was the most Russian thing I have ever read, only to find out that Valente is not actually from Russia.
If you liked Erin Morgenstein’s The Night Circus, then you should check out Deathless. They have a similar feel, but if I had to chose, I’d pick Deathless. Both novels can be overshadowed by their elegant styles, but at the end of the day, Deathless delivers more than Circus.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: I originally rated this book as a 3/5 on goodreads, but over the course of thinking back on the book and writing this review I’ve bumped it up to a 4/5. I just needed to sit and think about it for a while.
There is a lot more that I wish I could talk about, but doing so would dive into major spoilers for this novel. I’ll probably write a more spoiler filled post over the course of the next few weeks and will link it here.
“Oh quit that Yelena! Blushing is for virgins and Christians!” (pg 104)
“Baba Yaga gave a bleating cry and leapt up into the air, her skinny legs scissoring beneath her. She landed on Marya’s shoulders, digging her heels into the girl’s armpits.
“Mush, girl! Mush!” she yelped. “A wife must be a good mount, eh?” (105)
“Doesn’t mean we don’t know what stories are. Doesn’t mean we don’t walk them, every second. Chyerti- that’s us, demons and devils, small and big- are compulsive. We obsess. It’s our nature. We turn on a track, around and around; we march in step; we act out the same tales, over and over, the same set of motions, while time piles up like yarn under a wheel. We like patterns. They’re comforting. Sometimes little things change- a car instead of a horse, a girl not named Yelena. But it’s not different, not really. Not ever… That’s how you become deathless, volchitsa. Walk the same tale over and over, until you wear a groove into the world, until even if you vanished, the tale would keep turning, keep playing, like a phonograph, and you’d have to get up again, even with a bullet through your eye, to play your part and say your lines.” (110)
“Forests have secrets,” he said gently. “It’s practically what they’re there for. To hide things. To separate one world from another.” (129)
“You have heard those stories a hundred times. Jack always climbed the beanstalk. Dobrynya Nikitch always went to the Saracen Mountains. Finist the Falcon always married the merchants daughter. You knew how they ended. But you still wanted to hear your mother tell them, with her gentle voice and her fearful imitation of a growling wolf. If she told them differently, they would not happen the way they have already happened. But still, she must tell them for the story to continue. For it to happen the way it always happens. (177-78)