BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A 20th century re-imagination of Koschei the Deathless and Marya Morevna.
PROS: A well written, imaginative novel.
CONS: Slow pacing threw everything off, and the story felt as if it was lost for the language.
THE BOTTOM LINE: I think Catherynne Valente and I are completely incompatible. I really want to like her books: The Habitation of the Blessed was a highly anticipated book for me, and I couldn’t get past the first hundred pages before putting it aside. With Deathless, I’d hoped for another chance, but quickly found that it was a chore to read.
Set in the background of the rise of Stalinist Russia, Deathless takes the tale of Koschei the Deathless and re-imagines it for a new time and place. For the unaware of Russian folklore, it’s an interesting and informative exercise, one that’s peaked my interest in some of the background stories that have helped to inform it.
This story follows Marya Morevna as she watches her sisters wedded off to men who’ve sprang from birds, and who marries Koschei the Deathless, who’s hidden his own death from himself, and Marya’s own fall from grace with Koschei and her recovery with the naïve soldier Ivan. I have a difficult time remembering some of the finer points of the story, because often, I found myself focusing extensively on the language, rather than the story.
To be sure, Valente has crafted a well-written tale, one that uses repetition and some excellent language to carry the story across. But it comes off more often than not as pretentious, and frequently, I had to go back and revisit passages. By the end of the story, the book simply wasn’t something that I was reading for entertainment, but was something that I found myself working to get through simply to finish the book, never a reaction that I want to have when I read something. It’s a shame, because the book has quite a bit going for it: the modernization of a story, set in a relatively modern time, but with a real bit of imagination behind it.
At the end of the day, I’m not entirely sure why Deathless wasn’t for me: I’ve come across books with excellent, dense and ponderous writing that I’ve greatly enjoyed: Suzanne Clarke’s fantastic novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell springs to mind. Maybe it’s this particular brand of storytelling and alien background when it comes to folklore, or maybe the writing itself. Whatever the reason, I was relieved to reach the end, if anything, so that I could get on to my next book — which bothers me greatly. Maybe her next novel will suit me better.