Deathless by Catherynne M Valente

Having loved Palimpsest, I picked up Deathless somewhat reluctantly, unsure whether I wanted to risk breaking the spell. There’s always something risky about reading work by an author you’ve loved. Luckily, Deathless turned out to be a really, really good book.

It’s the story of a young girl, Marya, who is married to Koschei the Deathless, an ageless, mysterious and powerful figure who takes her away to a world of magic. Marya finds her will subjugated to his, and she undergoes a series of tests to prove herself worthy of him. Along the way she also learns some unpalatable truths, and finds herself tempted by a naive young man who represents everything that Koschei doesn’t.

Deathless is beautifully written. Palimpsest was dense but luxuriant. Deathless is a much easier, faster read, but no less evocative, full of temptingly decadent fantasy. The fantastic nature of Marya’s life and discoveries is undercut by darkness, though. Koschei, lord of life, is at war with the lord of death. And if that weren’t enough, there is the everyday brutality of early twentieth century Russia during the seige of Leningrad.

Deathless is thoughtful page-turner, a book with both the immediate rewards of Valente’s imagination and the deeper rewards of subtext and metaphor which operate throughout. It was the latter that held me particularly entranced, as I tried to trace the web of meanings that I thought were there but that the author, wisely, never hammers home.

I’ll put discussion of the metaphors under a cut because they’re spoilers, but I’ll end this part of the review by saying that this is the best book I’ve read in some time. Valente improves with every book, and the scary thing is, I don’t think she’s peaked yet. She’s probably the most exciting writer around at the moment and if she manages to produce books as moving, as intelligent and as entrancing as this, her future as a landmark fantasist is inevitable.

Now click on if you want to hear my interpretation.

So I don’t know what the author intended, but here is my reading of the book.

To me, the book makes a clever switch where the fantasy is used to represent reality, with reality representing fantasy, or at least superficiality. Marya is a smart, bookish girl who can see the fantastic elements of the world that other people don’t see, from the start, in bird form. It is for her that Koschei comes. Koschei is the master of life, but clearly it is no rosy, starry eyed conception of life that we’re talking about here; that much is clear from early on.

If Koschei is life, it is clearly a warts-and-all version of life, of reality, of disillusionment in its most literal sense. Marya, from her hints at understanding of the world beyond the surface, is seduced by reality, by life as it is, by seeing what the world truly is. And like life, Koschei’s seduction is one of subjugation. Marya’s control is undone by life itself, which cannot be bent to individual will.

Marya has to learn the rules of her tests, the way we need to learn life’s rules, to understand how to adapt to the world. And of course awareness of life brings with it awareness of death, loss, decay, and a constant battle to preserve life in the face of sorrow and dispersion.

What Ivan represents to Marya is the idealised memory of her life before knowledge, before she saw life as it was. She embraces him because he is the antithesis of Koschei, of the cruel revelations of truth. He is the simplicity and surface things that we all turn to, sometimes in our lives, when looking at the world with eyes open hurts too much, when fighting the war has taken its toll and we long for forgetting, for life in a simpler world that appears to make sense.

Of course, life cannot be wished away, and Ivan can only ever be mortal and temporary. The life he offers is doomed to fall apart in the face of reality, and Marya acknowledges this when she invites Koschei back into her life, both a capitulation, a failure, and an act of strength, an attempt to balance the idealism of her life with Ivan with the truth of Koschei.

(There is perhaps a consecutive metaphor running alongside the personal journey, of the Soviet Union in its own battle between idealism and reality, in their various guises, through the century. You could run a reading of the book on a much broader, less personal line, although the track would probably be essentially the same; the result more nuanced and complex than some reductive reviews suggest).

Marya’s personal journey takes her into a kind of coldness as she learns the rules of Koschei’s world, and the battle with death. She becomes a cynical pragmatist, and if she embraces Ivan as an attempt to flee the life she has with Koschei, she only succeeds in bringing her cynicism and pragmatism to his own world, to become her own Koschei to his Marya. Ironically, or tragically, or most likely inevitably, it takes the victory of death over Koschei, over life, the crumbling and decay of ideals and Ivan, for Marya to discover her love of life underneath it all, her compassion and her will to carry on.

The end of the book is dark, powerful and sad. But there is an obstinate hopefulness in Baba Yaga’s final speech to Marya. Life cannot be so easily silenced. Beneath the awful lessons of loss, the will to life, the spark or shoot of green, the feeling some place deep within the human heart is stirring.

That’s just my reading, anyway. It’s every reader’s luck to find their own way through.

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