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2011 Book Review: Deathless

May 17, 2011

I remember the exact moment when I fell in love with Catherynne M. Valente’s writing. It was sometime in late 2005, on a blog entry that seems to have since been locked away from public view. I had been following her for a while before that, because she’s generally funny, witty, and entertaining. But on this day, I was reading an entry where she talked about her writing, and she talked about the “scrawled verses on skin.” And it struck me so deeply. Those were the words to describe how I felt about my writing sometimes. Like I was pouring the words out so frantically that I had to scrawl them on my skin to catch them all. I hadn’t even known I was searching for them, and there they were. I feel that way about a lot of Valente’s books. They are stories that I never knew I wanted to read, stories that I hadn’t known I was searching for, and yet there they are.

Unlike Valente’s other books, I knew I wanted to read Deathless the moment I first heard whispers of its existence. I was just coming off of a Russian literature bender, focused primarily early 20th century works such as The Master and Margarita, Heart of a Dog, and Anna Karenina. This particular bender was fueled by my desire to understand the literary background of a character I was creating (short-handed as ‘Russian Revolutionary’), which in turn had been fueled by my one rather spectacularly dreadful attempt NaNoWriMo, a story which was littered with Russian folktale style short stories. Deathless was the merging of those two passions and I knew without a doubt that I had to have a copy of this book.

Fast forward to last year, when Valente posted on her blog that she was looking for more conventions to attend. As I usually do for such things, I perked up and dashed off a comment about our lovely local convention. One thing led to another, and suddenly she was not only coming to our lovely local convention, but Deathless was coming out just two days afterward. I wanted very badly to have one of the Advance Reading Copies that were being given away. I entered just about every contest I could lay hands on for a chance to get a copy before the convention. Sadly, I was unlucky at such things. I am, however, supremely lucky to have married a man who knows me well and tolerates my occasional madness. When Valente offered a Deathless ARC for the AggieCon charity auction, he knew that I would never bid high enough to get the book. He took over halfway through the bidding and won it for the dizzying price of $100. I may have squealed. I definitely flailed.

I spent every spare moment with the book, forswearing all other activities save work and sleep. If I’d had a full day to spend with it, I probably would have fortified the corner of the couch with tea and snacks so that I wouldn’t have to leave Marya and Koschei’s world until it was all done. As with all good books, I plowed forward, eager to know how it ended and then was sad once it was done. Like many other readers, I wanted very much to read it again immediately. Instead, I decided what I really needed was some time to process it.

Catherynne M. Valente’s Deathless is the story of Marya Morevna, a girl who doesn’t quite fit in once she sees the magic at the edges of the world in a time when magic is as rationed as flour and butter. It is the story of a young woman who seeks to know more of the secret world entwined with ours. It is the story of a woman who falls madly and painfully in love with Koschei, the Tsar of Life, who cannot die. And it is a story that has played out over and over again, as Koschei seeks love with a woman he can trust.

Deathless explores the brutality of love, the beauty of war, and often both at once. Valente’s lyrical turns of phrase evoke Russian folktales and post-Revolutionary propaganda. Fans of Russian literature, history, or language will find the tale peppered with numerous quips and sly word plays. Valente’s prose in Deathless is both tighter and more beautiful than in her other books, a bold painting in stark lines, rather than a complex tapestry of a thousand bejeweled threads.

It is a book to be devoured, but it is also a book to be savored. Like a magical feast laid before someone who has previously only known hunger, each sentence should be taken in slowly and examined for its many layers. A reader who has previously been starved of such delights will find there is more pleasure to be had in the anticipation of the ending as there is in reaching it. Fortunately, much like a magical feast, a book like this is something that can be enjoyed again and again. I know I will.

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