Review: Deathless by Catherynne Valente


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.


The question is always who is to take and who is to give. I took first, that’s all. You will take last.

Everyone knows that the greatest stories are told in threes. Goldilocks eats the porridge of three bears, not two, not four. The Big Bad Wolf tries to blow down the houses of three little pigs, no less, no more. And in Deathless, a madcap retelling of bits of Russian folklore, the tradition does not waver. It pivots on the tragic interactions between three characters: Koschei the Deathless, the Tsar of Life, who is so desperate to keep the world alive that he’s surrounded by death; Marya Morevna, his stolen bride, whose every heartbeat pushes her towards death, away from the magical domain of her deathless husband; and Ivan the Fool, the human soldier who pitifully falls in love with Marya, a woman spotted with scars from loving and warring with another man more incredible than Ivan will ever be.

These three characters will bite, kick, chase after, flee from, kiss, maim, heal, hate, blame, love, and forgive each other all across Russia, both the “real” Russia and the fantastic Russia found in storybooks. There are two wars going on, one with Germany, another with the Tsar of Death. And yet communism, Stalin, and the Siege of Leningrad all fade beside the twisted fates of Koschei, Marya, and Ivan.

In writing that is clever, feminist, complex, and downright lush, Catherynne Valente asks: Can love be equal? Is it only true power when it’s given, not taken? Should colorful monsters be caged in the name of progress? Is life an end or a beginning?

I received no answers, but opaque maybes, grey sortas, honest but frustrating it-depends-on-the-situation. Deathless is wild, dark, and sexy. Even as people are dying all around, even as hope disappears, from now on only to exist in the lands of the Tsar of Death, Koschei, Ivan, and Marya push forward, together and apart; their deformed and pure love for each other deathless even as Death hunts them down.

5 out of 5 stars