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Goodreads Choice Award
Nominee for Best Fantasy (2011)
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.

352 pages, Hardcover

First published March 29, 2011

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About the author

Catherynne M. Valente

255 books7,219 followers
Catherynne M. Valente was born on Cinco de Mayo, 1979 in Seattle, WA, but grew up in in the wheatgrass paradise of Northern California. She graduated from high school at age 15, going on to UC San Diego and Edinburgh University, receiving her B.A. in Classics with an emphasis in Ancient Greek Linguistics. She then drifted away from her M.A. program and into a long residence in the concrete and camphor wilds of Japan.

She currently lives in Maine with her partner, two dogs, and three cats, having drifted back to America and the mythic frontier of the Midwest.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,826 reviews
Profile Image for Nataliya.
744 reviews11.8k followers
April 25, 2023
I name Catherynne Valente an honorary Slav. She has a Slavic soul, somehow; otherwise how could she have written this book?!

This is a book about love. And life. Death. War. Loss. Hope. Despair. "Life is like that."

I grew up with these characters - in so many folk tales, in so many movies. The story is always the same. The evil Koschei the Deathless and Baba-Yaga, the kidnapped Marya Morevna (or Yelena, or Vasilisa), the brave Ivan who rescues her... These stories have been told countless times. But what if?... What if Koschei is the Tsar of Life? And what if he loves Marya and she loves him back? And what if there is a neverending tug of war in their tumultous marriage? And what if the story happens in Soviet Union in 1920s-1940s? And finally, most importantly, what if you, the reader, knew that at some point you would have to see Leningrad in 1942?
"No one is now what they were before the war. There’s just no getting any of it back."
For me, this was, above anything, the story of war and loss. The war between mythical country of Buyan and Viy, the Tsar of Death. The Great Patriotic War between Soviet Union and Germany. The Leningrad blockade . Leningrad was under siege by the Nazis from 1941 to 1943 - arguably the most lethal siege in history. Thousands of people froze and starved to death - several hundred per day in the winter of 1942. People ate sawdust bread, rats, pets, and each other. People died right on the streets. And yet the city - the Leningraders - never gave up.
"A war story is a black space. On the one side is before and on the other side is after, and what is inside belongs only to the dead."
Chapter 23 of this book tore my heart to pieces. As you may guess, this is the part with the blockade. I will not say much more except for quotes and real blockade pictures. They speak for themselves.
"That night, she burned all the books in the attic for heat. She carried them down, one by one, because December ate up her strength. She lit them in the stove while they all huddled around and put out their hands. Last one in was the Pushkin, and she cried, but without tears, because you cannot have tears without bread."
"A ration card says, This much life we have allotted you. It says, This much death we can keep from your door. But no more. It says, In Leningrad there is only so much life to go around. It says, The only thing not rationed in Leningrad is death."

(This picture is from the diaries of Tanya Savicheva, a young girl during the blockade. Each page is about a loved one's death. The last says, "Everybody died. Only Tanya is left". She died shortly after.)


This story is also about love. Its allures and pitfalls, its rewards and struggles. It's about the secret and private world of marriage. About hurting the one you love. About choices and sacrifices. About power and submission. Love is a war. "No one is now what they were before the war." And "[...]after love, no one is what they were before."

"A marriage is a private thing. It has its own wild laws, and secret histories, and savage acts, and what passes between married people is incomprehensible to outsiders. We look terrible to you, and severe, and you see our blood flying, but what we carry between us is hard-won, and we made it just as we wished it to be, just the color, just the shape."
The story Valente weaves is poignant and gut-wrenchingly beautiful. It is poetic and melodic like Russian folklore from which it draws inspiration. It is humorous (albeit darkly so) and bittersweet, intimate and hopeful, both simple and complex at the same time. It is strange and captivating. It is about loss and friendship and betrayal. There is no good or evil, black or white. In this, it's very human. And I love it.

We see the mystical world of Slavic folklore, beautifully captured by Valente. Rusalkas and leshy, firebirds and prophetic birds, flying mortar and pestle and Yaga's hut on chicken legs. The "real world" parts of the story are very well done as well, the mixture of realism and mysticism. The domovye - house imps - form committees and discover the advantages of filing claims over traditional mischief.
“You must see,” chirped Chairman Venik finally, “that a communal house requires communal domoviye, and communal domoviye require a committee. We are happy to do our part! It is a new world, and we do not wish to be left behind.”
Marya is denied the red Pioneer scarf - and carries it in her heart. Koschei comes to get her - and she follows him without thinking twice since in the Soviet Union "When they come for you, her mother had once warned, you have to go. It’s not about wanting or not wanting." Real life Party slogans permeate the mythical country of Buyan. Zmei Gorynych, the legendary three-headed dragon, deals with bureaucracy of the Purges. And Baba Comrade Yaga teaches Marya cold but real lessons - which can be so aptly summed up by Comrade Koschei:
"The goblins of the city may hold committees to divide a single potato, but the strong and the cruel still sit on the hill, and drink vodka, and wear black furs, and slurp borscht by the pail, like blood. Children may wear through their socks marching in righteous parades, but Papa never misses his wine with supper. Therefore, it is better to be strong and cruel than to be fair. At least, one eats better that way. And morality is more dependent on the state of one’s stomach than of one’s nation."
And, of course, this book is also about the power of stories which play out a certain way because that's how they are supposed to play out. Some things are inevitable - or are they? Can you change fate? Does it matter if you try?
For it to happen the way it always happens [...] The Church always splits. Ukraine always withers in a poison wind [...] You could tell your tale differently this time, I suppose. But you won’t [...] You will always fall in love, and it will always be like having your throat cut, just that fast. You will always run away with her. You will always lose her. You will always be a fool. You will always be dead, in a city of ice, snow falling into your ear. You have already done all of this and will do it again.
Incredible, masterful, poignant, beautiful book that will always stay with me. Chapter 23 still haunts me. 5 stars is not enough.

Recommended by: Jessie (Ageless Pages Reviews)
December 4, 2014
Deathless is a hauntingly beautiful novel that will stay with you forever!

Life is often full of beauty and joy. But life can also be cruel and painful at times. So it is only natural that the Czar of Life embodies both the wonderful and the terrible aspects of life. As a young girl, Marya Morevna captured the attention of the Czar of Life, the entity she's heard referred to in hushed whispers as Koschei the Deathless. And when Marya became a young woman, Koschei in turn captured her heart. After being whisked away by Koschei to a land of enchantment and wonder, Marya grows to love the Czar of Life, as well as life itself. But life can sometimes be uncertain as well. A growing war between the country of life and the country of death threatens to take Marya away from everything she's come to cherish. And when a stranger named Ivan stumbles upon the country of life and tries to convince Marya that everything she thinks she knows is wrong, Marya is not sure what to believe. How do you trust your heart once you've completely given it to another?

Wow...just...wow! Deathless is one of the most powerful and heartbreaking books I've ever read! Catherynne Valente has taken a very common tale in Russian folklore and transformed it into something truly unique and magical. The first part of the book introduces us to Marya Morevna...
Marya Morevna says, "You want a strong fantasy heroine?!? I once strangled an enemy combatant with my braid! Your move, Katniss Everdeen!

As a young girl, Marya sees things that others don't, like birds that transform into men and communist elves that maintain the order of the house she lives in. Because of this, others regard her as strange and ostracize her. Marya is a very sympathetic figure in this segment, and when she is in pain, the reader feels it as well. Much of this segment illustrates a very grim portrayal of life in Russia during the Russian Civil War. Marya is forced to live in a cramped house with eight families. When she expresses a desire to keep something for herself and not have to share it with everyone else (even something as simple as a red scarf), she is branded a traitor. The moment when Marya's red scarf is taken from her and she begs to be able to keep it is just one of many moments when my eyes began to water. However, the entire segment isn't so heart-wrenching. The introduction of a society of elves (also known as the House Committee) that live within the walls of Mayra's group home leads to some rather comedic and whimsical moments. This segment does a masterful job of blending reality and fantasy, using fairy-tale elements to create a brilliant allegory of a difficult period in Russia's history.

In addition, the first segment also introduces us to Koschei, the immortal Czar of Life. Marya has heard terrifying legends about Koschei, but when he offers to take her away from the torments of her current life, she feels compelled to follow him into his magical homeland. The final moments deal with Koschei compelling Marya to open herself to a new way of life, one where she allows herself to fully experience the pleasures of life and devour as many of them as she can without ever feeling required to share them with others (save himself). In this scene, Koschei encourages Marya to partake in an extravagant feast, but also demands that she only experience it in the way that he allows her to, which he claims to do only so that she will maximize her enjoyment from this. As this segment concludes, Koschei makes a rather chilling promise to Marya, "Oh, I will be cruel to you, Marya Morevna. It will stop your breath, how cruel I can be. But you understand, don't you? You are clever enough. I am a demanding creature. I am selfish and cruel and extremely unreasonable. But I am your servant. When you starve, I will feed you. When you are sick, I will tend to you. I crawl at your feet, for before your love, your kisses, I am debased. For you alone I will be weak. As the book continues, Koschei does indeed keep his promise, for better and for worse...

The second part of the book jumps ahead a few years, where Marya is now a young woman. While she spent her first few years of life in poverty, her courtship with Koschei has brought her many riches. This segment of the book is the most fairy-tale like (even down to Marya having to embark upon a magical quest), and it was also my favorite part of the book as well. Marya has three close companions in this segment, a sweet and perky gun-goblin named Naganya, a gruff but caring plant golem named Zemlehyed, and a vain and self-absorbed witch named Madame Lebedeva. All three of these characters are quite endearing (even Lebedeva, in her own special way), and their adventures with Marya lead to some of the more tender moments in the book. That's not to say this segment is without tragedy, however. For starters, Marya is a much different woman than the meek girl from the beginning. Koschei's cruelty has rubbed off on her, and there are times when Marya resorts to brutal tactics to impose her will on others, always assuring herself she is doing it for their own good (a claim she's heard Koschei give to her on many occasions). Also, we learn more about Koschei in this segment, beginning with the revelation that he has had many lovers before Marya...
This is Koschei, and women seem to be far more attracted to him than they are to me...not gonna lie, that's more than a little depressing!

Soon, Marya learns that all of Koschei's lovers are destined to betray him. While she vows that she loves Koschei far too much to ever do the same, she is still disturbed by the prophecy that she will one day leave Koschei for a man named Ivan. Also disturbing is the growing unrest between the Czar of Life and his brother, the Czar of Death. This rising conflict leads to the last half of the book, where a man from Russia stumbles upon Koschei's magical kingdom...would anyone like to guess as to what this man's name is?!?

Up until this point, I've been pretty specific in my descriptions of the book's events, but for the remainder of the review, I have to be more vague. While some of the information I've given you can be found on the book's back cover or in various descriptions of the book, revealing too much more would be an injustice to anyone who wants to experience this book for themselves. I will tell you that the second half is even more emotional than the first, and it covers such heavy topics as betrayal, loss, and the horrors of war. In fact, Chapter 23 is quite possibly the most depressing chapter of a fictional book I have ever read (of course, that hasn't stopped me from reading it two more times since then, as it is really that powerful). However, that's not to say that this entire segment is grim. There are some genuine sweet and heart-warming moments as well. One of the most humorous segments in the book occurs when Marya tries to exert control over Ivan the same way Koschei does to her, and Ivan instead gives her the response she should have given Koschei! Ivan proves to be a noble and likeable character, even though he isn't quite as strong or dynamic as Marya and Koschei...
This is Ivan's version of defending Marya...I don't think he's doing it right!

Due to the emotional depth of this book, I would have loved to have been able to give it five stars. However, I did have a couple of problems with Valente's writing style that permeated throughout the entire book. For one thing, Valente has a tendency to hammer a point home so hard that it can give you a headache! This is especially prevalent in any scene involving a meal...while I get that Valente was using food as a metaphor for life and pleasure, I still didn't need to read pages upon pages of descriptions of every kind of food item Valente could envision! (WARNING: anyone who's on a strict diet may want to avoid this book, as it's impossible not to get food cravings multiple times throughout the story!) Similar to this issue was Valente's tendency to repeat herself. Granted, she was going for a fairy-tale approach to the story, and fairy-tales often use repetition, but it was a bit off-putting when I pretty much knew word-for-word how entire paragraphs would read as I had already read them several times before!

While it may not be a perfect read, "Deathless" is still a most powerful one. Granted, people who embrace a socialist ideology may be offended at some of Valente's political statements, and those who don't have a working knowledge of Russian history may miss some of the references. That said, there is still more than enough here to please just about any reader. A view of real-life through a magical lens, "Deathless" is one emotional roller-coaster that is definitely worth riding!
Dave's confession - "I actually cried while reading this novel...this never happens when I read my Batman books...well, except for Frank Miller's All-Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder, Vol. 1 , but that was only because it sucked so bad!"
Profile Image for Kai Spellmeier.
Author 6 books13.6k followers
April 12, 2021
"Her heart was so cold that she could hold ice in her mouth and it would never melt."

This is so hard to rate, for this was a stunning and breathtaking novel. Full and rich of poetic language that leaves you sitting and thinking and forgetting about everything that is around you. It reads like a fairytale. Actually, it is the retelling of an old Russian fairytale, but Valente worked a lot of her own magic to make this precious book such a gemstone.

And by the way, this cover and the title result in some serious book porn.

I guess the only thing I can criticise is that this miracle of a book is sometimes just too overwhelming. It confused me at times and I'm still confused now that I've finished it.

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Profile Image for Katya.
387 reviews49 followers
December 6, 2020
I could have sworn I'd reviewed this book. I could have sworn I'd at least added it to my 'read' shelf! Either I'm crazy or Goodreads ate the review; either case is entirely possible.

Either way, I'm glad that I hadn't reviewed this book right after I'd read it, because the review would have been a very different one. I'd had some time to dwell on the writing, the story, and Valente as a writer, and have come to some conclusions that I didn't immediately see when I'd first read the book.

Conclusion: I have a serious problem with this book, cultural appropriation, and Valente's history as a writer.

Disclaimer: I am Russian, born and raised (although I've lived in the US for some time now) and the mythology and folklore that Valente appropriates in Deathless is the stuff of my childhood. Considering how often Russian history and culture is misappropriated and vilified in American media, I'm rather protective of it.

Deathless borrows both Russian culture and Slavic folklore for its story. To her credit, Valente does get the facts right, and she is an accomplished writer. If she hadn't trod on my home turf, maybe I would not have felt so strongly about this book.

But she did, and I do. Valente has a history of cultural appropriation when writing about Japan, another culture that she was not born or raised into, and yet writes about with the assurance of someone intimately familiar with the intricacies of its society and mythology. I hadn't known this when I first read Deathless, and walked away with a vague feeling of unease, having enjoyed the book well enough but realizing that something about it made me uncomfortable. I didn't realize until later that it was her assurance of her grasp on a culture that was not hers, a culture that she was not raised in and has hardly been immersed in (a Russian husband doesn't quite cut it, nor does a Japanese one) that set me on edge, and that this wasn't her first instance of cultural appropriation.

What really makes me uncomfortable about Deathless is Valente's interpretation of the folklore. Generally I'm very pro-re-tellings of fairytales, all for new and fresh takes on well-worn myths. However, taking the folklore of a culture that Valente has little intimate knowledge of and turning it into sexual S&M power play makes me deeply uncomfortable. That's like saying, "I know that you grew up with the Lion King as your childhood feel-good story where love and goodness triumph over evil, but what if I told you that Simba was actually stupid and boring and Nala totally got it on with Scar, who really looks like Oded Fehr?!" And I'm not prudish. I enjoy a good kink. But this is... it's like Valente was going for feminist but just ended up with gross and creepy with a side of cultural appropriation.

Not only that, but her take on Koschei, who is the ultimate villain in Slavic folklore, is reminiscent of a fangirl pointing to her favorite villain and crying, "He's not evil, he's just misunderstood!" Please, let's not assign motive and weakness to a villain of a folklore that you know little about outside of scholarly research just because you want to f*ck him.

And Koschei is not sexy. This is Koschei. This is not.

I'm not a fan of the way Valente flaunts her claimed familiarity with Slavic mythology figures in Deathless. From many reviews, it seems that readers are confused or turned off by the glib mentions of figures that they aren't familiar with. Meanwhile, Valente is name-dropping them like a Hollywood social climber. It has a feel of 'look how familiar with this culture I am!' while the readers are left in the dust wondering if they've missed something.

Another disclaimer, because apparently Valente's fans are relentless: I'm not saying you shouldn't like this book. I liked it okay until I examined both my feelings of unease and Valente's history as a writer. If you enjoyed it, that's your prerogative. I happen to feel strongly about this one for personal reasons.
Profile Image for Kogiopsis.
763 reviews1,477 followers
March 4, 2015
I suppose I should open this review with a disclaimer: this book has a 4.6 star average rating among my friends and a 4.16 rating overall, so clearly I'm an outlier here. Many of the critiques that I've read have focused on cultural appropriation, which is an issue I can't speak to, so on that subject: Katya's review and Liz's review.

My problems with the book predominantly lie elsewhere, but there is one aspect about this book as an adaptation that I want to address before moving on. In curiosity about the story that it was based on, I did a little searching, and while the internet is not the most reliable source of information, every version of the original story of Marya Morevna that I turned up positioned her completely differently than Deathless. In these versions of the story she is a warrior queen in her own right, leader of armies and defender of her kingdom. When she leaves Ivan alone, giving him the opportunity to free Khoschei, it's because she's going to put down a border rebellion. The original Marya is powerful, established as such even before her first appearance in the story.

In Valente's afterword she mentions that the question that led to this book was "why did was he (Khoschei) locked in her basement?". While that's an interesting question, the answer she chose bothered me. Imprisoning a powerful and 'deathless' rival seems like valid military strategy to me - the answer to that question then could have rested on, say, Marya being at war with Khoschei and finally outwitting him. Some would argue that that's what this book presents, but I disagree: it's made perfectly clear here, even when Khoschei is imprisoned, that he's only there because he chooses it, and that if he were willing he could free himself. As for Marya being a queen, well...

And am I the Tsaritsa of Life, then? half her heart asked. The other half answered, Not even for a moment were you ever queen.

And therein lies the problem. Marya, the original, was queen before she even appeared in the story. Marya, here, is never queen.

So: let's talk about how she gets to that state.

Let's talk about Khoschei's child grooming. This is honestly pretty blatant:

"Khoschei, Khoschei," she whispered. "What would I have been if I had never seen the birds? I am no one; I am nothing. I am a blank paper on which you and your magic wrote a girl. Just the kind of girl you wanted, all hungry and hurt and needing. A machine for loving you. Nothing in me was not made by you. I was six when the rook came - six! That's my whole life that you've bent in your hands."

Can we all just stare at the phrases 'just the kind of girl you wanted' and 'a machine for loving you' and think about them for a bit? This is Marya acknowledging that Khoschei diverted the course of her life to his own ends, that he created from her the person he wanted. This is, of course, long after the sequence in which he forbids her to speak or feed herself, feeds her until she becomes sick from overeating every night and later feverish, strips her (without her consent because, again, she's not allowed to speak so she's literally forbidden from voicing her consent or discomfort) in order to treat the illness he caused, and then when she breaks the silence to tell him that she's feeling better, he retaliates by leaving her in a stable alone, without any information about what she has to look forward to, all with the express and stated purpose of "stealing her will".

This is abuse. This is abuse. This. is. abuse.

And after that everything else in this book falls apart. The emotional content of the plot hinges on believing that Marya and Khoschei's relationship is valuable, but it's not. Marya would be better off without him (and this is, as in the long quote above, repeatedly almost acknowledged and then ignored for the plot). Their relationship isn't even shown to have much to it beyond sex - for that matter, in the entire time period between Marya's arrival at Khoschei's palace and their 'marriage', the only interaction the reader is shown between them is them fucking on a table.

Little else in this book really stands out. The secondary characters are as flat as fairy tale secondary characters generally are, and a lot of them are brutally killed off-screen early in the book, so they have little to contribute. The antagonist is very nearly Sir Not Appearing In This Book. It's surprising to me that, in a fairy tale retelling in which the traditional villain is made 'sympathetic', no attention is paid to the new villain, to discussing his motives or giving him much of a personality. (Side note: from what I can tell Viy actually doesn't come from Russian mythos but from an 1835 collection of short stories. Perhaps he's achieved folklore status - I am admittedly ignorant here.) Baba Yaga is... well, go up and read the reviews on cultural appropriation for that. The only secondary characters I found compelling were the rusalka mother and daughter Marya lived with in Leningrad, and that went so well for them.

Valente's writing is pretty, I'll give her that. And I've already got The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making on my Kindle, so I'll give that book a shot at some point, but I kind of wish I'd never read Deathless. Its view of life (preserved, static, selfish, in constant fear of death) and of love (also selfish, violent, a constant power struggle) were relentlessly pessimistic and vicious, and its characters even more so. Not my jam, to say the least.
Profile Image for Samantha.
417 reviews16.7k followers
February 7, 2017
This book is beautifully written but try as I might, I probably couldn't tell you what it's about. It feels like a series of stories, some eerie and some not, twisted up into Russian history where it's hard to tell what's real and what's not. The characters don't even feel like characters, just part of a set and not people that I got to know. But again, the writing is breathtaking and I feel small pieces of this story will stick with me.
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 6 books3,967 followers
July 13, 2018
Re-Read 7/13//18:

Valente is always worth re-reading IMHO. And other than making a few grand sweeping comments about birds and husbands, I have nothing to add to this marvelous piece of literature. The land of the dead versus the land of life in Russia. Mythology versus societal upheaval. Love, love, love, and none of it innocent.

Just like Russia. ;)

Original Review:

Breathtaking, quintessential Valente, making what might be a fairy tale into a gorgeously Russian love story between one unlucky girl stuck perpetually in the space of an hour who never got to marry the birds and the God of Life.

Of course, it never ends well, because she's conscripted into his eternal battle with Viy, Death, and regrets it, while simultaneously mastering Life in the middle of Leningrad during WWII, which ought to be considered one of the worst moments in human history.

Do we love life? Is he capricious and cruel and uncompromising and sweet? Is he locked in the basement and forced to listen to his wife make love to a mortal man? After that, can he still be true?

I cannot do this justice. Our heroine cannot fully commit to Life, and finally betrays him.

For all the truly magical qualities of this novel, the beautiful writing, the amazing mini-tales, I'm left in a state of profound sadness while being amazed at the sheer beauty of the tale.

It's raw, right down to the core, and horrific, sexy, full of the seeds of hope and longing and everything that makes the world so complicated and scary and wonderful all at once.

I sit in awe.
Profile Image for Liz.
600 reviews504 followers
April 28, 2017
After re-reading:
I re-read this novel, not because I liked it but because I wanted to recall the details to be able to point out what I couldn't stand.
Funnily enough, this time around the problem of cultural appropriation wasn't as much in the foreground as it was when I read this novel for the first time. I noticed other issues instead, and believe me, there are plenty for the book is not executed well.
My main problem with it still was the use of the Russian folklore in a manner I personally found inappropriate and at times even bordering on offensive. In addition to that, everything in this novel was extremely politicised (yeah, this period was politicised, but the author overdid it). So all the creatures have existed since the beginning of time and after the revolution they miraculously start bellowing out shallow slogans? Sorry, implausible.
Connected with this problem is the issue that I would not call it historical fiction, but neither is it fantasy or a re-telling. It is a monstrous hybrid, rather unpleasant to look at that constantly changes shapes. I can hardly call it fantasy because there were few original elements, most were taken from the Russian folklore and twisted for the purpose of the author. Well, the mix of magical characters from Russian folklore and the historical facts thrown in here and there did not work for me either.
However, this is not the point.
The point is that it is hardly historical. Somewhere in the background Lenin and Stalin (wizard with a mustache in Moskau, that's how he's described at some point, isn't it glorious?!) are mentioned, the war with Germany, the Siege of Leningrad, but there is nothing really happening. No details, no real facts, nothing. Historical? Hardly. Not in my understanding of the word "historical".
Several reviewers that rated the novel with 3 or less stars stated the same thing - It seemed like the author threw every bit of information she had on Russia, that time period and its folk-tales into one giant pot and this novel came out as a result. She barely worked with the material, she just threw in the terms, names and creatures. Sure, she twisted the tale of Marya, but all the other aspects were randomly thrown in.
Apart from that, there was no plot, none I could detect. Hardly anything happened, resulting in the feeling that I had wasted my time because this novel has no purpose, no message, no light. The characters are horribly underdeveloped.
Damn, the majority of novels is either plot-driven or character-driven, but this one was pointless-metaphor-driven.
There was no character development, there were no interesting dialogues (they repeated most of their shit around the second half of the novel), no interesting interactions or relationships. Nothing relatable, nothing "alive", as I like to say. The characters were devices and it all turned out pointless in the end, anyway.
Taken from the blurb: "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."
If this is the incarnation - it should have stayed dead.
I saw no love (only obsession and addiction) in this book, no history, no revolution happened apart from the word revolution being used a few times, the myths remained dead due to lifeless, horrible characters and a complete lack of plot.
What else would I like to say? Ah, yes, it was entirely black and white. There was no Good in this book, no light, no hope. Not a single character deserved redemption, was relatable or kind. There was just Evil, just cruelty, just lies and controversies the author didn't bother to explain.

However, after reading it a second time I see how many people are blind to this novel's faults - the write style. I hated it, mind you, but there are people who are enchanted by it and stop paying attention to everything else thanks to it. Perhaps it was the author's goal. Distract the reader through excessive use of metaphors and similies. But the words seemed empty to me. Used for the purpose of adding words, of creating the image that the author is clever. Frankly, it seemed obnixious to me. The whole structure of the novel rests on the foundation of the overuse of metaphors and similies. It seemed unapproachable at times, but mostly it was just laughable due to all the dramatic speeches that were completely empty content-wise.

Lastly, the names often do not correspond with the gender of the object or person mentioned, it just didn't seem Russian to me but what the author understood as Russian and understood rather wrong on many occasions, the plot is incomprehensible, nothing is explained, everything is overdone and exaggerated and the characters are horribly underdeveloped.
There was nothing I liked about it.

P.S. Their stay at Yaichka was ludicrous. I knew all the historical figures the author assembled there, but I didn't understand WHAT FOR and I doubt that the majority of readers who are not totally familiar with Russia will know who she is speaking about. And again - WHAT FOR?!

Ugh. This one was just plain bad, okay? Even worse the second time around.
Review from 2014:
Firstly, putting the Russian folk-tales, culture, history and famous “soul” aside, this book’s depiction of love was abhorrent in my opinion. Sadomasochism is not love, for love has no connection to display of physical superiority or the question “Who has the power?” The interpretation of love in this book was merely passion, for passion is the physical desire for somebody. Additionally, choosing both men is definitely not an option. It might sound fun regarding some male fictional characters to choose both instead of one, but in this case, where both men treated the woman rather inappropriately, “Neither” would have been a better solution.
Because somebody who knows the original tale might remember that Marya’s relationship with both Ivan and Koschei was slightly different.
Secondly, the characters bonds and their friendships. Implausible , to put it in one word and highly unlikely no matter whether in a real or a fantasy word to make it long. Friendship, irrespective of the fictional aspect, cannot be based on cruelty and blood-lust. It cannot, whichever way you look at it. Now that I think about it, the characters were neither realistic nor alive themselves.
This leads me to the write style of the author. Some surely may see it as enchanting, captivating and morbidly beautiful. As a passionate reader of Poe and a person who has read all his works I can argue that. What I think about the author’s write style is that it attempts to lure the reader and create the image of a dark, twisted fairy-tale, but fails miserably. Because of the, at times, overly long and complicated sentences. Because of the overuse of Russian names, words, creatures, which after a while sounded like the author tried to deliver the message that goes a bit like this: “Hey, look, I know so so much about Russia! Praise me, please!”
Laughable if you ask me. Knowing something and grasping its essence are different things , as I already said. But then I think I will never get tired of repeating that. Oh, and as some might have heard: “The greatest truths are the simplest.” With simple words an author can reach the reader’s heart and manifest his or her truth there, while the complicated pompous ones wander to the mind and are sorted there to be used, but that’s their only use.
For me, this book was stuffed with futile words. I wasn’t impressed.

And now, my last point, but decidedly the most significant one – the use of Russian folklore.
Hmpf. I didn’t like how the author connected Viy to Stalinism and politicised everything, I didn’t like the way the author made even the domoviye political and sputtering vainglorious words and slogans that were nothing but shallow.
Though thanks to the subjective, western depiction of Russia I didn’t even need to look up the origin of the author. An example of the stereotyped depiction is the constant consume of vodka. The women drink it, the men drink it, the children do and the elderly too.
Haha, very funny. Not.
I hate the obsession with vodka. Whenever somebody talks about Russia there is this image of the people drinking vodka instead of water. Urgh. Vodka is like a red rag to a bull to me. No, just no. In Russia you don’t give a young woman who never drinks a glass of vodka against a cough or a fever, sorry to disappoint.
Moreover, there was the depiction of Ivan the Dumb, not the blind and shallow and cruel, and Marya and Koschei… And the Baba Yaga. I hated the depiction of these characters. I am fine with re-tellings, I actually love many of those I’ve read, but this one was horrendous.
Ivan, the simple human in the cage of beasts, didn’t have the good generous and caring heart he has in the original tale. Actually, there was not a single good or someway positive character in this book. Marya was an unlikable, dark and selfish heroine. Unlikable heroines are important in literature, that is true, but not loathsome, cowardly, sex-obsessed ones.
And the interpretation of the tale itself wasn’t any better. Koschei’s death was… Excuse me?

After reading this book I feel like shaking my head and sighing exasperatedly and slapping the author hard at the same time. It was an enormous disappointment, this book. And the way Russian people, folklore characters and culture were shown was despicable and a far cry from reality or rather the truth.

And one more time: Using Russian names, food, drinks, historical events and characters from folktales does not mean capturing the Russian "soul". The author didn't. Oh hell, she really did not!
Profile Image for carol..
1,535 reviews7,871 followers
March 28, 2015
Deathless is

the silence at four a.m.

a warm day at the ocean, salt crusting like dried tears on my face

a glass vodka kept in the freezer, poured over a compote of cucumber in the middle of summer


Refreshing, magical, thoughtful, agonizing; Valente has re-written a Russian fairy tale into a complex love story. It begins:

“In a city by the sea which was once called St. Petersburg, then Petrograd, then Leningrad, then, much later, St. Petersburg again, there stood a long, thin house on a long, thin street. By a long, thin window, a child in a pale blue dress and pale green slippers waited for a bird to marry her.“

An amazing opening; one that lets the reader know the magic of names and the beauty of language and juxtaposes it with reality. Valente has taken the timeless part of fairy tales, the “long, long ago and far, far away…” away and rooted her love tale in Russia during the time of Stalin and eventually the war with Germany, although “there is always a war.” The story is about Marya Morevna, her first husband Koschei the Deathless, and her lover Ivan. Based on a fairy tale, one of the original versions Marya has chained Koschei in the basement. Despite restricting Ivan from the basement, one day he does, and sets Koshei free, who repays him by stealing Marya away. Ivan must track down Koshei’s hidden death to kill him before he can free Marya. Valente, however, tells the story from Marya’s point of view.


Review continued at my favorite non-censoring sites:

Profile Image for Richard Derus.
2,890 reviews1,920 followers
June 2, 2021
Rating: 4.25* of five


The Publisher Says: 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.

My Review: Remember how I said I didn't like books with majgickq and elves and stuff, and how very resistant I'd be so such stories?


Magical to a fault, mystical and full of eyerollingly silly things like big black cars with chicken's feet instead of tires, and factories where soldiers are hand-loomed by the Tsar of Life's cast-off mistresses under the supervision of Baba Yaga.

And what can I say? Like every hard and fast rule, this rule went flooey in no time at all, thanks to some ecstatic carolings and appreciative lowings from some very talented reviewers. You terrible people know who you are. I don't love you for causing me to eat my words so publicly.

Russia is a strange, strange place to me. During some really vicious pogroms they tossed in the 19th century, a Polish Jewish ancestress of mine...great-grandmother...walked away from her shtetl, her family, and her identity, got to Bavaria and married an old Catholic man with no living children but who had a shop, and started again. He died, she sold up, she moved on to the USA via Paris, two kids and an American lover in tow. So thanks Russians for being murderously anti-Semitic or I wouldn't be alive today! But the culture that gave rise to the anti-Semitic stuff has always filled me with disgust and not a little horror at the christian hate and apostolic misery doled out on all the people. The myths of the peasantry seem so unforgiving and tricksy and just plain vicious. Then I contemplate the way the country was run (being polite, not well, not ever)...it makes sense...but it still always made me feel icky to read about it.

Then comes this melding of myth and materialsm, supernatural and Supreme Soviet...and I fell head first into love with the package.

Valente's use of language is exemplary. She never stints or holds back. Descriptions are abundant yet they are never obfuscatory; the idea is to create a 3-D experience in the reader's mind and by GUM (old Cold War humor, sorry) she does just exactly that. She never reaches beyond her grasp or talks down to her audience. If only a Russian word will do, there it is, and the nuances are not Spelled Out For You and neither must you resort to Google and Good Luck to find out what the hell this woman's on about.

This (revoltingly) young writer has the temerity and the confidence and the chops to pull off this melding of modernity and medievalism without breaking a (visible) sweat. That's one sweet achievement. This is a book that's as Russian as hot tea with sour cherry preserves and as American as serving it in a Starbucks cup.

And it's beautiful. And it's moving. And it's graceful and lovely and possessed of the most marvelous ability to switch from tango to waltz to jitterbug. Dance with her. This opportunity doesn't come every day.
Profile Image for ✩ Yaz ✩.
494 reviews1,304 followers
April 4, 2022
First read: 5⭐️ — 1/10/2020 - 2/10/2020
Second read: 5⭐️ — 1/4/2022 - 4/4/2022

"Oh, I will be cruel to you, Marya Morevna. It will stop your breath, how cruel I can be. But you understand, don’t you? You are clever enough. I am a demanding creature. I am selfish and cruel and extremely unreasonable. But I am your servant. When you starve I will feed you; when you are sick I will tend you. I crawl at your feet; for before your love, your kisses, I am debased. For you alone I will be weak."

Deathless is unlike any other book I have read before; it is utterly mesmeric, devastatingly tragic and vibrantly rich in Russian folktales. It is a reminiscent of the magic in fairytales and the great tragedies of war and destruction.

Catherynne M. Valente's whimsical reimagination of the famed Russian Fairytale of The Death of Koschei the Deathless and weaving it's fantastical threads into Soviet Russia at the throes of its revolution, makes her a true master at her craft.

Valente's storytelling and writing is exquisitely lyrical, enriched with vivid imagery capturing the authentic essence of Russia in its fairytale-like fantasy and devastating history.

“Marya Morevna! Don’t you know anything? Girls must be very, very careful to care only for ribbons and magazines and wedding rings. They must sweep their hearts clean of anything but kisses and theater and dancing. They must never read Pushkin; they must never say clever things; they must never have sly eyes or wear their hair loose and wander around barefoot, or they will draw his attention! Safe in a house and a husband, that’s where you belong! But it’s too late now, too late! Fool child, the house and I tried so hard to raise you right!”

In many fairytales, the stories often follow the journey of A Damsel in Distress, A Villain and the Hero.

Yet, in Deathless Marya Morevna is no damsel but a girl from St. Petersburg who is spirited away by her betrothed to a country of life called Buyan and her betrothed is none other than Koschei the Deathless, not a villain but a Tsar of Life who hid his death away. Ivan Nikolayevich is a young officer and may and may not be the hero.

This is not a story of rescuing a damsel, not Marya Morevna who is a girl that reads Pushkin and befriends the Chyreti in a world torn by war and revolution where the earth reeks of death and fairytales linger.

Marya Morevna's story is of perseverance of love in all its beauty and ugliness, it's of the tragedy in war and death, it's of the wonders in magic and miracles. All of this embodies the growth of Marya from a dreamy young girl to a woman of power and strong will.

"When the world was young the seven Tsars and Tsaritsas divided it amongst themselves. The Tsar of the Birds chose the air and the clouds and the winds. The Tsaritsa of Salt chose cities with all their bustle and heedless hurtling. The Tsar of Water chose the seas and lakes, bays and oceans. The Tsaritsa of Night chose all the dark places and the places between, the thresholds, the shadows. The Tsaritsa of the Length of an Hour chose sorrow and misfortune as her territory, so that where anyone suffers, there is her country. This left only the Tsar of Life and the Tsar of Death to argue over what remained. For a time, they were content to quarrel over individual trees, stones, and streams, giving each other great whacks with that scythe which Death wields to cut down all that lives , and that hammer which Life wields, which builds up useful and lovely things such as fences and churches and potato distilleries. However, Life and Death are brothers, and their ambition is precisely equal.”

> Tsar of Life: Koschei
> Tsar of Death: Viy
> Tsarista of Night: Baba Yaga
> Tsar of Water
> Tsarista of Salt
> Tsar of Birds: Alkonost
> Tsarista of The Length of an Hour: Likho

The legend of the Tsars and Tsaristas of the world is so fascinating and added more richness and originality to the lore.

The book had an incredible cast of characters mostly derived from Russian fairytales and folklore:
> Domovoi "house-hold spirits also my favorite"
> Rusalka "water nymph"
> Gamayun "prophetic bird"
> Baba Yaga "the wild old woman or witch" also the Tsarista of Night in the book
> Firebird

The plot has multiple layers to it; one focuses on the wars correlating between Soviet Russia's war with Germany and the Tsar of Death's war on Bunyan, the Country of Life and Koschei's Kingdom. The depiction of the real events of the Great Patriotic War and its devastating consequences was perfect alongside the mythological war between Koschei and Viy, Life and Death. There are time skips as the story progresses from 1920's to the 1940's.

There, weeping, a tsarvena lies, locked in a cell.
And Master Grey Wolf serves her very well.
There, in her mortar, sweeping beneath the skies,
the demon Baba Yaga flies.
There Tsar Koschei,
he wastes away,
poring over his pale gold.

As in every fairytale, there is romance but unlike any romance; Marya and Koschei's love is not one that blossoms like a rose on a spring day. Their love is chaotic, unlike the Yelenas and Vasilias Koschei abducted before, his first and only Marya proves to be a force and not a girl with ridiculous romantic notions. The romance plays a big part in the story, but it is a very different idea of romance that plays out quite weirdly in the book I must say.

And as usual in fairytales, there many peculiarities and imaginative situations in the book that makes you pause and blink a few times until your mind wraps itself around it. You cannot help but crave more because the setting is spellbinding. Do not go into this expecting a stable plot because the story is extraordinary in every sense of the word I'm putting great emphasis on extra.

This book deserves a five-star⭐️ rating solely for being one of the most unique and compelling books I have ever read. Despite the pacing slowing midway, it managed to pick up soon after. It's such a memorable read and I will always be fond of it.

This book was recommended to me after reading The Winternight Trilogy which I loved and also has the rich Russian folklore setting. If you loved that trilogy and its first book The Bear and the Nightingale I really believe you would enjoy this one immensely.
Profile Image for Baba Yaga Reads.
112 reviews1,520 followers
December 27, 2022
“That's how you get deathless, volchitsa. Walk the same tale over and over, until you wear a groove in the world, until even if you vanished, the tale would keep turning, keep playing, like a phonograph, and you'd have to get up again, even with a bullet through your eye, to play your part and say your lines.”

I really commend Catherynne M. Valente for continuing to write and publish books to this day, because if I ever penned a novel like Deathless, I would consider my job as an author done once and for all.

It has everything modern bookish social media love—a villain love interest, Slavic mythology, morally gray female characters, feminist critique of fairy tale tropes—but written a decade before it became popular. The amount of care that Valente put into researching Russian history and culture shines through every page, resulting in a novel that brims with love for its setting. Classic Russian writers, from Bulgakov to Puškin and Akhmatova, are referenced throughout and were clearly a major source of inspiration for the author.

What seems to be most divisive among readers is the unorthodox and transformative (read: feminist) approach that Valente adopts when revisiting Slavic myths, particularly her choice to make the sexual subtext of the original fairy tales explicit. While I understand that this perspective can be off-putting for those who grew up with these characters, anyone with a passing knowledge of folklore studies can tell you that fairy tales often originate from cautionary stories about marriage and sexuality. In the vein of Angela Carter and Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Valente asks what these myths can tell us about gender roles, female resilience, and surviving toxic relationships. The choice to set the novel in Soviet Russia at the dawn of World War II further grounds the story in reality, allowing the author to imagine how these ancestral figures would adapt to life under communism.

Mythology, Valente seems to say, is not immutable and ahistorical; its tropes and characters evolve with the people who created them, adopting new meaning as the world around them changes. What happens, then, when those same people are made to endure unspeakable suffering at the hands of an oppressive government—a government that rejected the very myths and magic their culture is based on? Will the pagan gods return to their human form, escape from this world, or die altogether? This question lingers in the back of Marya’s story, looming like an existential threat to the world she knows. No matter how powerful they are, no matter how much they look down upon us weak and vulnerable humans, even Koschei the Deathless and Baba Yaga must bend to the forces of history.
Profile Image for Mayim de Vries.
577 reviews827 followers
March 7, 2020
“The future belongs to the dead, and the makers of the dead.”

It is a problem when you read a love story and you don’t like the story, the love disgusts you, and you cannot stand the heroine. If also the context or historical setting is unacceptable, only language itself is left to save the book. Most often: it is not enough.

The beginning is promising: little Marya Morevna, daughter of twelve mothers, spends the war in communist Leningrad dreaming of a magic husband. In “Deathless” Ms Valente moves into the safe space of fairy tales deconstructing the Russian folklore and merging it with the post-revolutionary and war-like Soviet Union. A story unfolds, a short episode in an eternal war between Life and Death. A war that cannot be won, can be only survived.

I’m torn between disappointment and disgust. Do not be fooled by the beautiful, poetic language or the successful transformation of Slavic mythology. The story is a bizarre combination of the superficial, and pop-cultural (dare I say—American?) approach to history and an attempt at philosophising the myths and truths found in fairy tales. But most myths are essentially about fertility and rituals around it. One can either show it with the help of sensuality and mystery (after all, these are the main components of every myth) or brutal, modern explicitness. “Deathless” opts for the latter.

All this is done in a sauce of revolution, Bolshevism and war, only the sauce is watered down so that the modern reader can stomach it and even perhaps believe it magical. In “Deathless” Ms Valente optimally uses her amazing, literary workshop, creating a story saturated with lyrics, metaphors and similes. Historical reality (times of Bolshevism, Stalinism and World War II) is mixed here with fairy-tale allegory, the border is fluid and subtly yet consistently blurred by the author. Unfortunately for the author, this novel requires not a “suspension of belief” but a suspension of “historical knowledge”. In my paternal grandmother’s tales the Red Army equalled Red Death. She called them “svoloch” because apparently, she didn’t possess a word filthy enough to designate such phenomenon in her native language and so even before I read The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, I knew of hundreds of books like that, each with its own name and its own sordid tale. Consequently, magical realism or historical magicalism of the evocative prose notwithstanding, I could not stomach the mixture served in “Deathless” and for some time I even thought Marya is on my side as there were multiple descriptions of food and vomiting used as a metaphor for the relationship between lovers (the issue of who rules in a relationship has an existential dimension in this story). But in this tale, the only side Marya takes, is her own.

“I shall make you all new, my own revolution, neither red nor white, but black.”

While I was initially captivated by the beautiful, evocative writing, after pages and pages of wandering in the maze of metaphors and fables, I began to lose the thread of the story and feel more and more tired, especially that “Deathless” is an incredibly depressing, pessimistic and fatalistic novel. This fatalism is mainly manifested in the conclusion that death awaits us at the end of life. It could be maliciously said that in this way Valente achieves the Himalayas of literary perspicacity, but, of course, the book is less about this truism and more about how it is presented. Naturally, it is hardly surprising that the novel is bleak, in places even overwhelmingly gloomy: mother Russia and her history haunted by corpses with holes in the back of their heads is not a particularly cheerful topic.

This is the main reason why at times “Deathless” reminded me of Bulgakov (metaphysics contrasted with anything but grandiose life in Soviet Russia where numerous metaphors and repetitions were used to counterbalance the descriptions of mundane reality). Ms Valente also borrowed something from Sapkowski which is clearly visible in her postmodern processing of fairy tales in the context of a Russia plundered, raped and sterilized by both the Communist experiment and the Nazi invasion. I appreciated those bitter-funny scenes when various fairy tales characters speak in new-language of primitive apparatchiks and the Chekists. Finally, we see how the old, romantically ambiguous evil takes on a clumsy, banal form of modernity. The dragon assuming the form of a NKVD official was just like Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann. All the above is inlaid with fragments of Anna Akhmatova’s poetry.

To sum up, for the pleasure of delving into the more or less well-known beliefs of Slavic peoples, “Deathless” is worth reading provided that you do not mind a powerful dose of dark fatalism and a hefty dollop of poetic truisms. I did not manage to find the magic key that would open some hidden basement of meanings, and what lays in the plain open was not enough for me. To tackle Russian history in literary fiction means that one enters into a competition with the biggest giants of literature. This is a great risk and it is extremely difficult to say something new or better than the great Russian writers did. Yes, the images from starving Leningrad are moving, but it is merely a snippet of problems that others have described in deeper, fuller, and more terrible ways. When competing with geniuses, even an outstanding writer risks that his/her words will be shallow, empty, and superficial. And that, in my opinion, happened to Ms Valente, although it is still undoubtedly a book worth reading and I am sure that many people will receive it completely differently than I do.

I was buddy reading this thing with Anirudh and so the blame goes on to him. :)
Profile Image for Nastassja.
423 reviews987 followers
March 11, 2017
If a novelist wrote a true story about how things really happened, no one would believe him, and he might even be punished for spreading propaganda. But if he wrote a book full of lies about things that could never really happen, with only a few true things hidden in it, well, he would be hailed as a hero of the People, given a seat at a writers’ cafe, served wine and ukha, and not have to pay for any of it.

Catherynne M. Valente, indeed, has written about things that really happened and hid it, in our case behind a fairy-tale. Sure, this book was magical and fairy-tale like, but for me, first and foremost, it was historical fiction. As we know, the thing with historical fiction is that it can be interpreted differently, depending on how a person perceives historical facts and lays them down on paper. Politics is messy, recent history is even messier. It’s hard to write about something and stay neutral, showing the events as an outsider or an observer. Valente couldn’t manage either. I am not blaming her for anything, but it felt that she had a strong opinion on the period of Russian history from Revolution of 1917 to one of the hardest and saddest periods in Russian history - Siege of Leningrad (1941-1944). The thing is, I can't say I agree with the author's vision. Of course, it might not bother non-Russian people, but for me it is a history of my country and it was hard to read about it, knowing that things are not as simple as sometimes Valente made them to be. But that’s not why I didn’t enjoy this book, on the opposite, I applaud the author for her courage in taking such challenging historical period for foundation of her book and speaking her opinion (even if I think it wasn't a wise decision due to several factors I'll explain later on). Some things I agreed with, with some I didn’t: the truth is in the eye of the beholder, after all. One thing is for sure: Valente deserves to be mentioned with other authors who's written about Russia and did not mix it with dirt and heresy (yes, I am looking at you The Bronze Horseman), apart from the vodka moments, that is: when will authors learn that Russians do not drink vodka instead of water, and surely they do not treat illness with vodka:
“Drink, Marousha,” he clucked gently, like a mother, and put a glass to her lips. “Your lungs want vodka.”

*cringe* Just nooooo!

First and foremost thing that bothered me about this book is characters. I didn’t feel them, I thought them quite bland and one-minded: obsession of any kind was the driven force of every character there is. I love dark, flawed, damaged characters, but I must see something in them apart from darkness; these characters felt morally degraded, I didn’t notice any virtue in any of them, I didn’t feel they had souls. All they ever wanted is to have sex and posses each other and other things or people. Sure, with Koschei it was easier to accept, his character arc is all about being an ancient creature who only lives, takes, torments, spends, dies, comes to life again and goes in the same circle over and over. I admit, despite his image absolutely clashing in my head with the real Koschei from my childhood fairy-tales (he was and always will be canonical villain, not a sexy young misunderstood hero), I kind of almost liked this one Valente showed us, I can see why Leigh Bardugo chose him as prototype for her Darkling. I understand the appeal.
"I don't care, Marya Morevna. Kiss him. Take him to your bed, and the vila, too, for all it matters to me. Do you understand me, wife? There need never be any rules between us. Let us be greedy together; let us hoard. Let us hit each other with birch branches and lock each other in dungeons; let us drink each other's blood in the night and betray each other in the sun. Let us lie and lust and take hundreds of lovers; let us dance until snow melts beneath us. Let us steal and eat until we grow fat and roll in the pleasures of life, clutching each other for purchase. Only leave me my death — let me hold this one thing sacred and unmolested and secret — and I will serve you a meal myself, served on a platter of all the world's bounty. Only do not leave me, swear that you will never leave me, and no empress will stand higher. Forget the girls in the factory. Be selfish and cruel and think nothing of them. I am selfish. I am cruel. My mate cannot be less than I. I will have you in my hoard, Marya Morevna, my black mirror.”

But Marya Morevna felt shallow. I expected more development from her character. I understand that we stay witness to her transformation from innocent girl to Koschei’s beloved, as she must be equal to him. But again, I saw the transformation, I surely saw the darkness and greed and lust, but I didn’t see depth in her character. It all felt supercilious, underdeveloped, based on lower instincts. I can’t respect a character that doesn’t have a drop of decency in them. Plus, in the fairy-tale Marya holds wisdom in herself, this version of Marya only loved to hold male flesh inside her. I didn’t see one quality I should respect or like in the heroine. Maybe it was the point, but to my taste these characters were too hopeless, too gone.

Baba Yaga, though, I liked the modern version of her, the only funny moments in the book that really made me smile were hers. The old crone have some gunpowder left in her still, and she never looses her slyness.
“I ate all of my husbands. First I ate their love, then their will, then their despair, and then I made pies of their bodies - and those bodies were so dear to me!”

The second most bothersome thing for me was the element of BDSM in this book. Now, it was hard as it is to imagine Koschei young and virile, but him having twisted sex is something one better not to see if they want to preserve their childhood memories. At times, it felt as if Valente had raped Russian folklore and gave birth to something monstrous instead. And call me old-fashioned, but I love me some good romance in a book if I want to believe in the couple. What Koschei and Marya had was not romantic and was not love – obsession, passion, desire to hurt. Not healthy, not beautiful, certainly disturbing. Add to that double insta-love and a very strange love-triangle with Ivan: the heroine literally slept with both men at the same time. The romance part was killed for me to the root. Maybe that is how it was supposed to be, maybe I don’t get their “love”, but, honestly, I don’t even feel bad for not trying to get into that mess.

The third issue is the clash of history and fairy-tale. I am not sure it was a good idea to choose recent historical period and mix it with fairy-tale. For me Russian fairy-tale is something old and wise and magical and not very mixable with modern world. Sure, there was the part in the beginning with Comrades domoviye, which really reminded me of my all-time favorite cartoon about Domovyonok Kusya, who lives in Soviet Union and whom Baba Yaga was trying to catch and eat the whole time. As for the rest of the mix, it felt like two pieces of different puzzles that won’t add into one no matter from which side you are trying to join them. Maybe because I am Russian it was hard to add some things together, and for non Russian people there wouldn’t be any problems with it, but yeah, you can’t erase years of your cultural upbringing and make it into something else. Katya in her review perfectly underlined that twisting something that millions of kids grew up with is borderline offensive, like, for example, twisting the Lion King cartoon: what if Simba was actually stupid and boring and Nala totally got it on with Scar, who really looks like Oded Fehr. [the quote copied from Katya's review for purposes of example]. How would you feel about such change of your childhood fairy-tale? Although, the part with Buyan - Koshei’s kingdom - was relatively comfortable for me to read about, as it was a thing of fairy-tale too, and, though, there were changes, they were more curious than unpleasant.

The only thing that got my admiration with this book is prose, so beautiful and exquisite one cannot but fall in love with it. I admit, I don't get to read such beautifully written books often, so I was utterly enchanted by it and do not regret reading this book if only for the poetic writing. My only complaint about it that sometimes it was so surreal I didn’t understand what was going on in the book: beautifully written but incomprehensive.

All in all, this was definitely an "uncomfortable" kind of book that challenged my boundaries as a reader. Alas, it turned out mostly not my cup of tea, and, though, I fairly enjoyed the first half of the book, the second one was a huge mess, and made me skim-read the last 30%. And the ending was so surreal I don't know what to think about the weirdness it was. Moreover, I can't say anything good about the solidness of the plot: nothing was really happening in the book plotwise, and big time jumps (10 years) were mostly for the benefit of the historical picture, not character development.
I still would advice to try this book if you are curious about it, with this one you never know if it'll turn out your thing or not. Just keep in mind that this book is not something one reads for leisure; it's too dark, twisted and hope-free.
Profile Image for Megan Baxter.
985 reviews656 followers
May 19, 2014
Magic in books often comes in a certain flavour. It has wonder, and awe, and power. It is sometimes threatening, it is sometimes homey, it is sometimes awe-inspiring. I'm not sure I've ever run into magic quite like this before, though.

Note: The rest of this review has been withdrawn due to the recent changes in Goodreads policy and enforcement. You can read why I came to this decision here.

In the meantime, you can read the entire review at Smorgasbook
Profile Image for Viktoria Winter.
105 reviews449 followers
February 1, 2016
“Oh, I will be cruel to you, Marya Morevna. It will stop your breath, how cruel I can be. But you understand, don’t you? You are clever enough. I am a demanding creature. I am selfish and cruel and extremely unreasonable. But I am your servant. When you starve I will feed you; when you are sick I will tend you. I crawl at your feet; for before your love, your kisses, I am debased. For you alone I will be weak.”

…is that…is that Alarkling!?


Unfortunately, it is not. Fortunately, it’s another book with ferocious romance!

I found out about this book when I reblogged a beautiful graphic on Tumblr, so naturally I had to search up the synopsis! I was immediately drawn to the words “Russian folklore” and “heroine” and I quickly made the parallels between this story and my all-time favorite, the Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo.

Deathless excels in retelling stories―both mythical and historical. The writing style appears as though derived from poetry, a real lyrical masterpiece. This book wasn’t just a retelling of Koschei the Deathless, it embodied the essence of the original folklore with all the prose and metaphors. Because it is a stand-alone novel, I didn’t have to worry about searching for a sequel. Sometimes this is a blessing, other times it’s a curse. But in Valente’s case, this was an astronomical blessing. It gave me time to really consume the writing, to take it all in slowly and digest each sentence. Readers should tread through this book very carefully so they don’t miss a single detail!

Marya Morevena gives a clear example of what it means to be a well-developed character. She starts her journey as a meek, young girl, the youngest of four sisters, who spends her days staring outside her bedroom window, watching birds fall from trees who then turn into suitors for her siblings. Her cherished red scarf, a sigil of her loyalty to her home, is taken from her after she dares to share her discoveries with the rest of her schoolmates. She grows to hope for little, and dream of more. Sharing her home with refuges of war is only half of her worries, for Marya desires to see the naked world when it is stripped bare. It isn’t until Koschei falls from her tree that her wish is granted.

I’m still shell-shocked over the ending of this book, and I’m going to need to re-read it a few more times to fully grasp its beauty. But as for now, I highly recommend it to any fan of the Grisha Trilogy! Or any fan of folklore, for that matter! You won’t be disappointed.
Profile Image for Thomas.
1,459 reviews8,560 followers
November 20, 2019
Wish I could write a decent review of this book but I have no idea what happened for most of it (sorry Goodreads friends!) From other reviews I can see that Deathless dives into Russian mythology. Unfortunately I literally have no clue what happened for most of the book, and by the middle half I flipped through the remaining pages just so I could mark it as read and count it toward my Goodreads reading challenge (trying to be honest about my motivations and lack of comprehension here). Catherynne Valente uses so many similes and while I sense that others find the language beautiful, the overwrought prose form further confused me and made me feel detached from these characters. I don’t want to comment too much on the characters and their relationships, again because of my middling comprehension of the plot overall, but I struggled to understand or connect with what drew these characters to one another – it felt like a lot of intense romantic clichés combined with trying to dominate and gain power, which in some contexts with consent can be totally fine, but in the context of this book made me feel disconnected.

Hoping for a better read next!
Profile Image for David.
Author 18 books336 followers
December 23, 2015
In Deathless, Catherynne Valente ambitiously takes on the Russian tale of Koschei the Deathless, turning the traditional tale of the wicked bride-stealing Tsar of Life into a modern fable featuring one such bride, Marya Morevna, who learns to match Koschei in deviousness.

“The rapt pupil will be forgiven for assuming the Tsar of Death to be wicked and the Tsar of Life to be virtuous. Let the truth be told: There is no virtue anywhere. Life is sly and unscrupulous, a blackguard, wolfish, severe. In service to itself, it will commit any offense. So, too, is Death possessed of infinite strategies and a gaunt nature- but also mercy, also grace and tenderness. In his own country, Death can be kind.”

One thing that strikes me about almost every work of Russian fiction (or fiction set in Russia, as Valente is not herself Russian, but her mastery of detail might convince you otherwise): Russia just has not ever been a very nice place. It has beauty and magic and heroism, but the people are hard survivors of centuries of lethal winters and murderous invaders and cruel rulers. Softness and comfort are rare, precious things. Deathless is a story with all of the above, but Marya Morevna's little bits of kindness and comfort are, as you might expect, hard-won and easily lost.

This book also blends traditional Russian folk tale and all the creatures that go with it (yes, Baba Yaga, of course, and also firebirds and house-elves and russalkas and Father Winter) with modern history, or 20th century history in this case. Marya Morevna begins the story as a fifteen-year-old girl who proudly wears the red scarf of Lenin's Young Pioneers, a shy girl who reads too much Pushkin and also sees birds turn into men. Each of her sisters is courted and taken away by a suitor who, unbeknownst to anyone but Marya, is a bird.

The blending of mythology with Soviet history is not a contradiction; much of the book proceeds in understandable but not always linear and never very rational fashion. Magic and fairy tale logic will not bend for prosaic reality, not even in the USSR. But that doesn't mean magic and fairy tales are unaffected by the USSR. In Soviet Union, even your fairy tales are communist! Marya's next encounter with magic is the discovery of the Domovoi, or house-elves, living in the house her family now has to share with eleven other families. Since all the families moved in, so did their Domovoi, and the little creatures have formed a Committee and become loyal members of the Party. As they tell Marya, they can cause much more mischief by writing letters than by breaking crockery.

I think the Stalinist house-elves were my favorite part of the book.

Eventually, Koschei the Deathless comes for Marya, marries her, and as she's being swept off her feet, she gets some hard lessons from Koschei's sister, Baba Yaga. Like most fairy tale wives who marry evil immortal sorcerers, Marya's story isn't supposed to have a happy ending. But Marya decides she's not going to be just another Yelena warehoused and entombed.

“Husbands lie, Masha. I should know; I've eaten my share. That's lesson one. Lesson number two: among the topics about which a husband is most likely to lie are money, drink, black eyes, political affiliation, and women who squatted on his lap before and after your sweet self.”

Catherynne Valente is always working with fairy tales, one way or the other, and you might think of her as the modern era's Brothers Grimm, retelling much older stories beautifully and imaginatively but without flensing off the horror and the grime. Valente plays all the traditional chords, like skillful use of the Rule of Three exactly when appropriate. Her gift is also with words: her books are endless collections of quotable quotes, profound paragraphs, elegant sentences crafted just so. You wish every fantasy author could fill her prose with such pretty words that regardless of the story, you always know someone will say something on the next page that you want to cut out and remember.

And yet... Sigh. Not quite 5 stars. Why not? Because as much as I love and admire Catherynne Valente's writing, she's an undisciplined genius, going off wherever the story takes her, filling it with whatever words and images strike her fancy. There is a plot of sorts to this book, but it's the plot of a fairy tale, and so it meanders, it breaks logic, it ends vaguely. Maybe it's churlish of me to want a novelistic structure in a modern fairy tale, but sometimes reading Valente is like stuffing yourself with fudge. The box is there, full of the stuff, and you can't stop helping yourself, but you know you're really eating too much and this is too much rich gooey sweetness for one sitting. I've had this reaction to most of her adult books; oddly enough, it's her MG Fairyland books, where perhaps her perfect command of heart and soul and sentences and imperfect command of narrative are ideally suited, that have me rapturously in love with her writing. I really wanted Deathless to be an adult Girl Who...Fairyland book, and it.... wasn't... quite. But I can easily see this being a 5-star book for less curmudgeonly, nitpicky, and critical readers than myself, and it did nothing to diminish my appreciation for Catherynne Valente as a writer.
Profile Image for Vivian.
2,839 reviews393 followers
May 9, 2017
You humans, you know, whoever built you sewed irony into your sinews.

On the face of it, this seems to be a very simple fairy tale story albeit with astonishingly gorgeous prose. Valante's wordsmithing is art; I think I ended up with over 50 bookmarks. Also, the delicate story within a story within a story is so precise that it could be easy to ignore or miss without the relevant prerequisite knowledge about the history of Russia.

This story does not wander, it is cyclical. It embraces a never-ending mindset rather than a linear one. This is an older conceptual philosophy that predates Christian theology. Marya and Koschei come full circle like a wheel spinning.

Remember, dream, mourn. There is no beginning without an ending, but with each ending comes a beginning. This is elegant. The layers of history and symbolism and life are delicately constructed, all nestled inside of each other. This is a book where writing a review is difficult, nigh impossible because there are too many nuances to address without pages, every single thing that appears does so for a reason and will appear again.

I loved Koschei from the beginning:
If she had looked out the window, she might have seen a great, hoary old black owl alight on the branch of the oak tree. She might have seen the owl lean perilously forward on his green-black branch and, without taking his gaze from her window, fall hard—thump, bash!—onto the streetside. She would have seen the bird bounce up, and when he righted himself, become a handsome young man in a handsome black coat, his dark hair curly and thick, flecked with silver, his mouth half-smiling, as if anticipating a terribly sweet thing.

I will read this again, not because I will forget it, but because it is so beautiful, bleak, and sharp that I must. My thanks to Eve for buddy reading it with me, a pleasure shared.


FREE with sign up to Tor.com's ebook club. **US and Canada only**

It's got mixed reviews from my friends with a Love/Hate split. Though the beautiful prose seems to be agreed upon, which I'll be honest and admit that I am seduced by pretty arrangements. Can't help it; I'm weak.

BR with Eve, 4/23
Profile Image for Brian.
688 reviews335 followers
November 18, 2017
“Did everything that had magic have teeth?”

“Deathless” is a novel that brought my reading life to a skidding halt. It took me over three weeks to read this text, only because I had no desire to ever pick it up. I am still too young to need a colonoscopy but I thought of scheduling one rather than picking up this novel again. Before you ask the obvious question, I finished it because it was a book club selection and I have read every book since the club’s inception. Got a streak to keep, ya know!
The author, Catherynne M. Valente, has a skill with language, and some of her figurative language is delightfully creative. She also has a keen talent at times for describing something in a truly unique original and thoroughly enlightening manner.
However,…she cannot plot her way out of a paper sack, and having read the book I would be hard put to tell you the point. The problem with this text is that the author throws in pretty much every Russian or Slavic folktale she has even a passing familiarity with, and a little judiciousness and development of a few well-chosen stories would have served the text nicely. What my book club was able to discuss about this text was what we brought to it forcibly. None of us, except the person who chose it, had anything to bring to the text without really stretching for it.
I could go on, but in short, a book that I did not want to pick up even one time…that says it all. I will not be taking a journey with Ms. Valente again. I can see why people might like her, but her style is not for me.
Profile Image for Trish.
1,931 reviews3,402 followers
July 13, 2018
Slavic folklore is just as interesting and rich as any other and Catherynne M. Valente knows how to bring it to life.

We enter this magical world in 1918, when the protagonist, Marya, is just 10 years old. And we leave it, in the same place (though everything has changed) in 1952.
Marya lives in a house in Petrograd (which is Leningrad, which is St. Petersburg - the name usually telling you when you are there as the city has been renamed in different periods throughout Russian history). Since "the people" now rule Russia, it is considered almost sinful to own a house alone so Marya and her mother (her father and borthers having perished in WWI) are forced to share the house with 11 other families.
Marya is a the youngest of four remaining girls and a wild and clever child. She loves stories and animals and has her own head. One day, she looks out of a window and sees a bird turn into a man and thus her story truly begins. She becomes Koschei's bride and enters different magical realms, fights wars, meets and even befriends creatures of Slavic folklore, braves tests, falls in love, despairs.

Koschei, for those who don't know, is an archetypal male antagonist, described mainly as abducting women (usually the wife of the story's hero). Koschei cannot be killed by conventional means because his soul (or death) is hidden separate from his body inside a needle, which is in an egg, which is in a duck, which is in a hare, which is in an iron chest (sometimes the chest is crystal and/or gold), which is buried under a green oak tree, which is on the island of Buyan in the ocean. As long as his soul is safe, he cannot die. And yes, I'm sure this is where J.K. Rowling got her idea for Horcruxes. This is also where he gets his surname "the Deathless".
Koschei is sometimes portrayed as old, and sometimes as young, but always as tall and thin. Sometimes one half of his body is young and beautiful and the other half is old and ugly. He has as many faces as there are ways to spell his name.
But, much like in my previous book (The Master and Margarita), this story shows Koschei in a slightly different light. What if the undying is simply looking for his soulmate? What if his supposed cruelty is only a metaphor for what love can do to us, depending on the circumstances - or what the people we love usually do to us by lying or being unfaithful?

This rendition of the classical fairytale "The Death of Koschei the Deathless" is simultaneously a modern twist on an old tale (all while staying faithful to the classic characters) and a history lesson. The author brings to life Russia during some very turbulent times. Thus, there is spying and reporting on neighbours, bureaucrary, revolution, going from one state form to the next. People starve and the almost incredibly cold Russian winter takes care of the rest. Just think about the difficulty for any given person to keep up with the ever-changing political landscape and demands from whoever/whatever ruled them! Marya was a great way to drive home this point as she was born in one world, a child in the next, a teenager in yet another, and then an adult in yet another. Who are you when your roots are constantly unearthed?!
As a counter-balance, there are also lush forests and glittering ponds (Russia has some astonishingly beautiful places) and the world is inhabited not only by humans but also by quirky Domovoy (house elves), seductive Rusalkas (a type of mermaid) and Vilas (nymphs), treasure-hoarding dragons, the cunning Likho (the personification of bad luck) with her perfect timing, transforming birds of all kind, Baba Yaga (grandmotherly witch that is also Koschei's sister) as well as the Lord of Life and the Lord of Death themselves.

Once again, Valente's enchanting writing style was the perfect frame for this lively tale of love and loss, war, identity and passion (just look at the quotes I've highlighted). The way she writes shows how much she, herself, cares for the tales she spins, and her writing style has a certain poetry to it that always captivates me.
It's a wonderful tale of magic but also of horrifying real-life events, teaching the readers as much about the fantastic as about the mundane.
Profile Image for Brittney ~ Reverie and Ink.
259 reviews4,895 followers
July 30, 2016
I'm going to cough this one up to a "It's not you, its me."

What did I just read?

I honestly have no idea. Some odd attempt at a hades/persephone retelling... somehow mixed in tandem with Russian history/folklore (which sounds awesome, right?) I have no idea what to make of what I just read though.

The story started off with the appearance of a beautifully written fairytale. It is based off Russian folklore, after all. And then things got weird. And weirder.

Let me say this... I have no doubt this book is brilliant. It is a story within a story. Breathtaking poetic language. If you love to write, perhaps you'll want to pick this up just based on that. You'll probably enjoy it or at least appreciate it.

But it was most certainly not a fun read. At least not for me. I will admit that part of this is just a reflection of my lack of knowledge of this era in Russian history. But I can't help but feel that even if I was an educated reader- I would have still felt nothing but a bitter taste after that reading experience. I'm just not the type of reader that finds pleasure in depressing and confusing books where you're constantly digging to find the story in the mess of words. I read for fun. I don't want to feel icky and bitter if I devote that many hours to a book.

My final thoughts are this: Don't read this if you're looking for romance or warm fuzzy feelings. Steer clear if you're wanting a light, whimsical read with a happy ending. Pick it up if you're entranced by folklore, no matter how odd- or if you love the idea of symbolism taking over the book. I'm not "not" recommending this book... it just wasn't for me.

My Blog ~ Instagram
Profile Image for Galena.
63 reviews4 followers
February 15, 2012
I really hate to give this such a low rating, but the book just left me cold. I had read the first chapter of it on tor.com and it seemed like it was going to be a really interesting book--I don't know much about Russian mythology and this seemed like an interesting way to test it out. But the rest of the book did not live up to the promise of the first chapter, in tone or characterization. I felt like the first chapter belonged in a completely different story from the rest of the book. I found myself skipping paragraphs and large chunks of the book after the part where Ivan appears, because I didn't really care about Ivan and my attention just fizzled and I wanted to just get to the end of the book so I could go read a different one. When your reader starts skimming and skipping, you've lost them completely. I feel like the author was more concerned with whipping out her poetical prose that she's so famous for rather than tightening up the story and making it flow properly. No amount of pretty descriptive language is going to save anything when the reader is skipping past it because by this point they're bored of it.
Profile Image for Wanda Pedersen.
1,861 reviews369 followers
May 11, 2017
I chose to read this book because it was one of the oldest on my TBR list and it was available at the library. Not maybe the most compelling reasons to make a selection, and it seems that I haven’t been in the correct mood to appreciate it.

Catherynne Valente is an excellent writer. I can’t complain about the writing style, or the vocabulary, or anything like that. The fault is mine—I don’t know enough about Russian folk tales to properly appreciate this retelling.

What did I like? The Stalinist house elves. They were awesome!

I spent the whole book feeling like there was something just out of my reach, something that just wasn’t clicking. It also didn’t help that life has been especially busy of late and I haven’t had the usual amount of time to devote to Deathless. Your mileage may vary.
Profile Image for saïd.
6,165 reviews705 followers
March 10, 2023
In Soviet Russia... culture appropriates YOU.
Deathless is an absolutely disgusting and distasteful book. I would not recommend it to anyone who has anything beyond a superficial Hollywood-level understanding of Russian history or culture. Valente (who is decidedly not Russian*) threw the Wikipedia page on Russian folklore into a blender and prettied up the mess that came out—name-dropping like it’s going out of style, shoving every possible reference to #JustRussianThings into her prose as though the audience will forget where the story’s set, prose so purple it should probably be iced. I love a good eroticised villain, but this felt like sexing up your creepy uncle to set him up with the little girl he’s been watching for her entire life. It’s Twilight-levels of age difference. It’s beyond gross.

A retelling of the Russian Revolution and later Soviet involvement in WWII filtered through native folklore sounds like something that would be right up my alley. Important to remember is that, only a few decades before the events in this book took place, the vast majority of Russian citizens had been impoverished and starving peasants. I love intelligent deconstructions of what folkloric stories have to say about a particular culture, but folklore in and of itself doesn’t tend to be a good story: it is, fundamentally, a collection of moralistic life lessons intended to teach children, and lessons do not engaging stories make. This, coupled with the fact that my previous encounters with Valente’s writing had left me with the conclusion that she favours style over substance to the point that every interesting part of her stories is overshadowed by the garishly florid prose, didn’t give me a lot of optimism going in.

Valente pays a lot of lip service to wanting to portray Russian folklore in all its strangeness and darkness—not as a refuge from the horrors of the real world but as a companion to them, serving as a mirror put up against everything from Stalin’s purges to the Siege of Leningrad. But the difficulty of tying folklore (which is at its core didactic, not to mention divorced from a specific time or place) to real-world events is that, when the real-world events in question are not only within living memory but also bearers of incredibly painful cultural memories, care is an absolute necessity lest you end up making a mockery of the very thing you’re trying to extol.

Koschei the Deathless is an evil abductor figure who usually steals the wife or daughter of the hero in any given folkloric story; he’s typically depicted as a hideous and frightening old man, incredibly powerful and extremely difficult to kill (hence the ‘deathless’ moniker). Marya Morevna is part of one of the most famous folktales in which Koschei appears.

More or less, here is the plot of the original tale: Ivan Tsarevitch goes in search of his three sisters and meets Marya Morevna and marries her; after a while Marya Morevna, who is a warrior as well as a princess, is called to war and orders her husband not to open the dungeon door; Ivan, of course, does so and discovers Koschei, who tricks Ivan into freeing him; Koschei then kidnaps Marya Morevna, prompting Ivan to chase after him; Koschei kills Ivan, puts his corpse into a barrel, and throws it into the sea; Ivan is revived by his sisters’ husbands, who happen to be powerful wizards; the wizards tell Ivan needs to get a magical horse from Baba Yaga in order to defeat Koschei, and so Ivan undergoes a series of tests in order to get the horse, at which point he manages to kill Koschei and burn his body; Marya Morevna is freed and everyone celebrates.

Valente decides instead that not only is Koschei betrothed to Marya Morevna, but also she’s into it because, in Valente’s telling of the story, Koschei is young and handsome. This entirely changes the nature of the original story, but I guess the accuracy of Russian folklore is only important until it gets actually dark. It’s Hades and Persephone in the warped version people on social media love: Hades doesn’t actually kidnap Persephone, he rescued her; he’s not her much-older uncle but rather youthful and sexy. Beauty and the Beast except the Beast is exactly as ‘beastly’ as those sexy painted-green aliens are on Star Trek are ‘alien.’ Whatever. The rest of the book is a love triangle where Marya Morevna has to choose between Koschei and Viy (Koschei’s brother, known as the Tsar of Death). The struggle between the two to win the hand of Marya Morevna culminates in the Siege of Leningrad.

Yes. You read that right. The Siege of Leningrad, during which over 800 thousand innocent civilians died of starvation, was the result of a petty love triangle in a YA novel.

And Valente doesn’t stop at that jaw-droppingly offensive display, because she goes on to imply that various folkloric figures are complicit in Stalin’s Politburo’s treatment of the Russian people, most notably Baba Yaga. The portrayal of Baba Yaga, a native Slavic figure inexorably entrenched in Russian cultural tradition, on the side of the Politburo made me sick to my stomach. Yes, she’s a witch who eats children, but the way Valente writes her as a wealthy high-society figure riding about in a limousine and demanding to be called ‘chairman’ feels slimy and wrong. It’s sort of like turning Robin Hood into a Capitalist. The BDSM undertones are also disgusting, namely because they’re in the context of the Great Terror or the Siege of Leningrad.

On top of all of this awful mess, Valente’s writing isn’t even good. She’s ‘a perfect example of a writer taking every bad habit they have and then refusing to work past them,’ as one of my friends put it, which results in overly ornamental prose that tries to be ‘lush’ but ends up ‘overgrown’ instead. Look at these examples:
I do not tolerate a world emptied of you. I have tried. For a year I have called every black tree Marya Morevna; I have looked for your face in the patterns of the ice. In the dark, I have pored over the loss of you like pale gold.
I will not let her speak because I love her, and when you love someone, you do not make them tell war stories. A war story is a black space. On the one side is before and on the other side is after, and what is inside belongs only to the dead.
You will always go into that tent. You will see her scar and wonder where she got it. You will always be amazed at how one woman can have so much black hair. You will always fall in love, and it will always be like having your throat cut, just that fast. You will always run away with her. You will always lose her. You will always be a fool. You will always be dead, in a city of ice, snow falling into your ear. You have already done all of this and will do it again.
Koschei smiled. His pale lips sought hers, crushing her into a kiss like dying. She tasted sweetness there, as though he still kissed her with honey and sugar on his tongue. When he pulled away, his eyes shone. [...] “I don’t care, Marya Morevna. Kiss him. Take him to your bed, and the villa, too, for all it matters to me. Do you understand me, wife? There need never be any rules between us. Let us be greedy together; let us hoard. Let us hit each other with birch branches and lock each other in dungeons; let us drink each other’s blood in the night and betray each other in the sun. Let us lie and lust and take hundreds of lovers; let us dance until snow melts beneath us. Let us steal and eat until we grow fat and roll in the pleasures of life, clutching each other for purchase. Only leave me my death—let me hold this one thing sacred and unmolested and secret—and I will serve you a meal myself, served on a platter of all the world’s bounty. Only do not leave me, swear that you will never leave me, and no empress will stand higher. Forget the girls in the factory. Be selfish and cruel and think nothing of them. I am selfish. I am cruel. My mate cannot be less than I. I will have you in my hoard, Marya Morevna, my black mirror.”
This isn’t elegant, it’s just bad. It’s not poetic, it’s just bad.

As a final note: Russian is not the only culture Valente has appropriated and fetishised in the name of ‘appreciation’ or ‘acknowledgement.’ She’s also had issues with East Asian and MENA cultures. And now Ancient Greek, for some reason. There’s nothing wrong, in my opinion, with someone’s writing about a culture of which they are not part, as long as they do so respectfully. But Valente does not do that. Valente writes bad fan fiction of important aspects of folklore. It’s not clever and it’s not cute.


*Valente strikes me as the kind of person who thinks that being married to someone from another culture (her husband is Russian) makes her an honourary member of that culture, which gives her a get-out-of-jail-free card to play fast and loose with the horrors of Stalinism. It doesn’t.
910 reviews256 followers
January 13, 2019
This one is intense. Beautiful and awful, from when awful used to mean something quite different.

And yet four stars is telling me "I really liked it" and that doesn't quite seem right at all - how do you like a book like this?

In my review of The Bear and the Nightingale, I compared the two books as sides of the same coin. About Deathless, I said:

"Reading it takes your breath away - much in the same way as being slowly crushed to death. You breathe out and can't breathe back in, and the world crumbles beneath you."

And it's true. This book digs in deep, burrows into your psyche and soul and fills you with wonder and despair - but like it? Enjoy it?

No. Five stars it is, because liking is not an option here.
May 28, 2023

💀 DNF at 25%.

Boredom Fest + 92 pages that feel like 2,458 (at least) + simplistic, cliche-ified (yes, that is a word) and Westernized as shrimp take on Russian history + unlikable as fish characters + Valente making it her mission to throw every single Russian folklore character she ever heard about into her narrative, for no other reason than because she can + I don't give a bloody squid about anything = bye bye, Marya Morevna!

That's the spirit!

P.S. For very insightful, enlightening reviews of this book by readers who know what the fish they're talking about when it comes to all things Russian and Slavic (unlike some retired breeders of murderous crustaceans of my acquaintance), click here and here and here and here and here. You're welcome and stuff.

Note to self: next time you want to read about Russian folklore, read an actual Russian tale, not ridiculously over-hyped, Americanized Westernized crap stuff.
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