Once upon a time, there was a young girl who wished for magic and marriage amid the carnage of World War II and the birth of the USSR. Catherynne M. Valente braids Slavic fairy tales and folklore into this engrossing, dark and sexy story.
Didn't expect sex in a child's fairy tale? “Deathless” is not for tender ages or faint of heart, yet it is a fairy tale. Political intrigue and tongue-in-cheek humor also make an appearance in the revisited and revised bedtime stories making up a foundation for “Deathless.”
At the age of 6, Marya Morevna watched in wonder as a bird disguised as a prince courted her eldest sister. She resolves that if she is a good girl, the world may continue to give her glimpses of magic hidden behind walls and buried in the depths of forests. With the backdrop of War World II, famine and genocide Mayra, from St. Petersburg, struggles to distinguish this new magical world from the real one crumbling around her.
Those not familiar with Russian folklore will find enough breadcrumbs to enjoy the novel, but do not expect full explanations. A quick search online will provide detailed descriptions of Domovoi, Rusalka and, most importantly, Koshei the Deathless.
What are these tales told by firelight to awestruck toddlers in foreign lands? The basics of the tales are those essential to bedtime stories: a damsel, a brave rescuer, and a little magic. However, Valente throws in some much needed spice that would make Snow White blush. There is no good versus evil; all of her characters are a humanized, with a healthy mix of both.
Those worrying over the cultural barrier, shouldn't. If you'd like a little insight into Valente's fairy tale characters, an American counterpart of a Domovoi would be a “Borrower,” tiny people living in walls, borrowing shoelaces, teacups and matches. But the Domovoi are much more complex, more interesting in this reader’s opinion. They are soldiers in their own right.
In “Deathless,” nothing is as it seems and to take anything at face value is to risk a quick end. Such was the life for citizens of Russia and Poland during World War II, and Valente, rightly, does not sugarcoat the dark, at times hopeless, atmosphere.
“Deathless” is layered with plot lines that will keep your mind turning. To say the novel is intriguing is putting it mildly. From Page 1 it is a roller-coaster that demands to be placed on a re-read annually shelf. That’s where my copy is resting, waiting for me to come back and enjoy the ride.