reviews

Book musing: Deathless by Catherynne Valente

I am trying to figure out why I didn’t like this book. The investigation, like an autopsy, is becoming interesting for its own sake. Normally it’s obvious why a book doesn’t work for me, but not in this case.

Was it well written?

Yes, yes it was.

Were there well-developed female characters?

Yes, the protagonist is a wonderfully active woman who loves hunting and seduction.

Is it because you don’t like Stories of Inevitable Betrayal?

That’s a strong contender.

Is it because Russian nicknames really annoy you? Or, to put it another way, is it because despite one Russian literature course, you don’t know much about Russian culture and history, so you’re annoyed at how much is going over your head?

You’re getting warmer…

Could it be that you never knew, before this very day that you are writing this review and googling spellings in the book you only listened to, that “The Death of Koschei the Deathless” is an actual Russian fairy tale, also known as “Marya Morevna”?

Ugh, okay, fine. This is another unqualified review.

It’s a big shame, too, because I normally love creative retellings of fairy tales. My favorite part of the book was the parallel stories about Marya’s sisters — how they got their husbands, and later Marya and Ivan’s visits to them. Those scenes were pure fairy tale language, and they worked marvelously well for me — far more than anything else in the book, which never hooked me as a whole. Even two-thirds of the way into it, I seriously considered returning it to the library — not because I was irked or offended, the way I am with other books I don’t finish, but just because I felt so indifferent toward the whole arc of whether or not Marya would stay faithful to Koschei or what would happen between her and Ivan.

But if I may make some humble observations on how well this book worked with such an ignorant reader as myself: I am surprised that Deathless was published two years after Palimpsest. I would have guessed the reverse, or that Deathless was even an early work. The pacing didn’t always work for me — especially the jump over the first year Marya spent in Buyan. It was too big of a character change, and I never felt close to her three friends or appreciated their friendship. Nor was Marya and Koschei’s relationship the type that appeals to me.

But an idea occurred to me close to the end, after the descriptions of the famine in Leningrad had me physically shuddering. Maybe, I thought, the whole story of Deathless is actually a metaphor-tribute to the effects of WWII on Russia and St. Petersburg in particular. That is the only way I can respect it, really. The nonfiction aspect can’t just be an offhand part the story.

Because I looked up the siege of Leningrad, and now I’m angry again at my Western education that never taught me how many people died there over those two years. More, it turns out, than those who died in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the atom bombs dropped, and far more slowly.

(Side note: I have fond memories and much respect for my alma mater, but I will forever be bitter about that time I took a World Literature course that used only one book — an anthology titled Western Literature.)

So if you are a Russian scholar, particularly of folklore and history, I would recommend this book to you. Otherwise, I can’t give it a high rating. Its charms feel limited.

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