Deathless by Catherynne Valente (Fantasy. 352 pages. 2011)
Deathless tells the tale of Marya Morevna, a young Russian woman who falls in love with Koschei the Deathless and is spirited away to the fantastic kingdom he rules. Once there, she must prove herself worthy to wed Koschei by performing three tasks for the monstrous Baba Yaga. But these are only the first of Marya’s trials. Though Koschei has swept her away from the harsh world of Communist Russia, she is soon confronted with the violence of war on the doorstep of his magical kingdom–the relentless onslaught of Koschei’s brother, who seeks to bring all life into the realm of the dead. Marya must also face the blackness, jealousy, and infidelity lurking inside Koschei’s heart, and within her own.
Deathless is set against a background of war — war in the realms of the mortal and the fantastic, war between lovers, and war with ourselves. Based on Russian history and folktales, Deathless plunges the reader into worlds sometimes beautiful, often horrific, and always grimly fantastic. No matter where Marya turns, starvation creeps behind her — and not just the kind of starvation that gnaws at her belly, but the kind that threatens to whither her heart and soul as well. In Deathless, Valente explores how we nourish ourselves and struggle to survive in spite of great odds and our own worst instincts.
Valente tends towards lush prose and Deathless is a beautiful read for those who love the written word. It’s a bittersweet book that provides a rich narrative alongside a probing look at humanity, magic, and our penchant for war to destroy both.
Maybe not a beach read, but definitely a rewarding one.