fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsCatherynne Valente Deathless fantasy book reviewsDeathless by Catherynne M. Valente

CLASSIFICATION: Weaving together fairy tales and history, Deathless is kind of like Pan’s Labyrinth, if it was told by Hayao Miyazaki and Neil Gaiman. Highly recommended for fans of adult fairy tales, Russian folklore, and Catherynne M. Valente.

FORMAT/INFO: Deathless is 352 pages long divided over a Prologue, 6 Parts, and 30 numbered/titled chapters. Narration is in the third-person, mostly via the protagonist, Marya Morevna. Deathless is self-contained. March 29, 2011 marks the North American Hardcover publication of Deathless via Tor. Cover artwork is provided by Beth White.

ANALYSIS: As a fan of fairy tales and mythology from around the world, I loved Valente’s The Orphan’s Tales, which I consider a modern day classic. So when I heard the author was putting her unique stamp on Russian folklore in her latest novel, Deathless, I couldn’t wait to get a copy…

Presented mostly in the form of a fairy tale, Deathless is the story of Marya Morevna, the fourth oldest and fourth prettiest daughter who, at “sixteen years of age, with seventeen’s shadow hanging heavy on her every tear”, meets Koschei the Deathless, who whisks her away to his home in Buyan in the Country of Life. Now, I’m no expert on Russian folklore — in fact, apart from Baba Yaga, I have very little familiarity with Slavic mythology — but from what I could gather from researching Koschei online, Deathless remains fairly true to the original tales including Koschei’s death hidden from his body, birds turning into men who marry Marya’s sisters, an Ivan who steals Marya away from Koschei, a role played by Baba Yaga, and Koschei’s fated demise.

Of course, there are plenty of deviations, like Koschei depicted as a tragic hero rather than an evil villain; the historical setting, which includes Leningrad during World War II; Ivan and Marya not being brother and sister; and the war between the Tsar of Life and the Tsar of Death. Even with all of the changes made to the original tales however, Valente manages to keep her novel firmly rooted in Slavic mythology as evidenced by the appearances of domovoi (house imps), leshy (forest imps), vila, rusalka, firebirds, Likho, Viy, Gamayun and more. At the same time, Valente’s boundless imagination is on full display. Among the more inventive material in the novel are a rifle imp and a factory where girls who never age weave lifeless cloth soldiers for battle against the Tsar of Death.

Personally, what I loved most about Deathless was the fairy tale aspect, specifically the author’s frequent use of the “rule of three”: the three birds who turn into men and marry Marya’s three older sisters; the three tasks that Marya must perform in order to gain Baba Yaga’s approval to marry Koschei; the three chyerti friends who aid Marya with her tasks; the three gifts Marya receives from her sisters when she and Ivan are fleeing the Country of Life; and so on. Even when Catherynne M. Valente is not employing the rule of three, most of Deathless still possesses a charming fairy tale-like quality that accounts for much of the novel’s irresistible appeal.

Unfortunately, from the moment the story shifts to Leningrad at the start of Part Four until the book’s conclusion, it felt like I was reading a different novel altogether. The subject matter became darker and more depressing, the pacing waned, and the fairy tale qualities were less enchanting. To top it off, the ambiguous ending was hardly the payoff that I was expecting. Now don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against fairy tales with dark themes, adult content or unhappy endings — on the contrary, I enjoy such tales very much — but in this case, the last three Parts of Deathless just didn’t fit with the rest of the book.

While I may have had issues with the direction and tone of the novel’s final three Parts, I have nothing but praise for Catherynne M. Valente’s writing. Between her evocative and melodic prose, vivid imagination, a genuine passion for the material and bold vision, Valente’s performance in Deathless was a joy to experience, and one of the main reasons to read the novel:

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 sets 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 house, a girl not named Yelena. But it’s no different, not really. Not ever. That’s how you get deathless volchitsa. Walk the same tale over and over, until you wear a groove in 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.

CONCLUSION: If not for faltering towards the end, Catherynne M. Valente’s Deathless could have been another masterpiece like The Orphan’s Tales. Even so, Deathless is still a special novel, one that will no doubt garner award recognition while continuing to expand Valente’s audience and her reputation as a master storyteller.

~Robert ThompsonCatherynne Valente's Deathless

Catherynne Valente Deathless fantasy book reviewsAfter finishing Catherynne Valente’s Deathless, I sat back in my chair and thought on it for a long, long time. Like most of her work, it’s a story that demands careful reading and close attention, not only because the prose is so dense and layered, but because she has plenty to say — through subtext and symbolism — about all kinds of things: love and death, war and life, stories and fate.

Set in Russia during the aftermath of the Revolution, and capitalizing on the uncertain governmental upheavals as St Petersburg became Leningrad, young Marya Morevna watches the world from her window and waits for life to begin.

Then Koschei the Deathless comes to her door. For anyone familiar with Russian fairy tales, Koschei is a recognizable figure: dark and forbidding, sinister and magical, who retains his immortality through hiding his death in a strange and secretive place, and often appears as a dark suitor to the story’s heroine.

Marya leaps at the chance to run away with Koschei, all the way to his mysterious kingdom and retinue of servants who are at constant war with Viy, the Tsar of Death. At this point the story becomes difficult to describe: though things happen, it’s all very dreamlike and inconclusive — not what you’d expect from your usual fantasy novel, or even fairy tales in general.

Deathless is divided into six parts, with each detailing a period of Marya’s life as she goes from youthful maid, to warrior wife, to elderly woman. Valente has plenty to say about a variety of subjects, from marriage to revolutions to the relationship between life and death, and it’s all stirred together into a gloriously rich stew of history and folklore.

The more you know about Russian folklore and history, the more you’ll be able to appreciate the way Valente plays with the recurring themes and archetypes of that country: from the surplus of Ivans and Yelenas, to creatures such as the grey wolf and firebird, to universal fairy tale themes, like trifold laws and tests of loyalty. And naturally, Baba Yaga turns up and is just as grotesque and bloodthirsty and hilarious as you’d expect.

It’s not easy to read (I paced myself at one chapter per night, just to fully appreciate the prose) and it’s not for everyone, but if you’re familiar with the idiosyncratic elements of Valente’s work and love a dark and creepy fairy tale, then Deathless has your name written on it. Personally, I loved it and I’m already looking forward to reading it a second time.

~Rebecca Fisher

Deathless — (2011) Publisher: Koschei the Deathless is to Russian folklore what devils or wicked witches are to European culture: a menacing, evil figure; the villain of countless stories which have been passed on through story and text for generations. But Koschei has never before been seen through the eyes of Catherynne Valente, whose modernized and transformed take on the legend brings the action to modern times, spanning many of the great developments of Russian history in the twentieth century. Deathless, however, is no dry, historical tome: it lights up like fire as the young Marya Morevna transforms from a clever child of the revolution, to Koschei’s beautiful bride, to his eventual undoing. Along the way there are Stalinist house elves, magical quests, secrecy and bureaucracy, and games of lust and power. All told, Deathless is a collision of magical history and actual history, of revolution and mythology, of love and death, which will bring Russian myth back to life in a stunning new incarnation.


  • Robert Thompson

    ROBERT THOMPSON (on FanLit's staff July 2009 — October 2011) is the creator and former editor of Fantasy Book Critic, a website dedicated to the promotion of speculative fiction. Before FBC, he worked in the music industry editing Kings of A&R and as an A&R scout for Warner Bros. Besides reading and music, Robert also loves video games, football, and art. He lives in the state of Washington with his wife Annie and their children Zane and Kayla. Robert retired from FanLit in October 2011 after more than 2 years of service. He doesn't do much reviewing anymore, but he still does a little work for us behind the scenes.

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  • Rebecca Fisher

    REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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