Book Review: Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente

Deathless is a retelling of Russian folklore. It’s a story about war, death, abusive and violent marriage, and people who are not to be seen through black and white lenses. Marya Morvena, a child with stories in her head, reads her Pushkin as no girl should and thusly invites Deathless, Koschei, into her life to be her husband. Thus begins her transformation into a WW2 soldier whose heart has hardened and grown cold. We get to witness their marriage where abuse is part of their romantic play in which Marya herself takes part by using her power over him. In the background of this plays a Stalinist state where books are burned for heat and potatoes rationed in a world with bureaucratic goblins and comrade Baba-Yaga.

The stage has been set, and there is only the story to be followed. It’s just that I found it hard to care for the story of Marya’s transformation, mainly because it was so strongly tied to her abusive relationship with Koschei. Their bloody love-making made me only grimace. Mainly because this book glorified such a relationship. It made it epic and cliche with things like Koschei being this typical moody, poetical bad boy with his leather pants. I wanted to love this book with beautiful prose and bureaucratic goblins, which were the book’s highlights, but I couldn’t. Another thing I couldn’t get past was the stereotypical view of Russians and their eating and drinking habits. There is more to their cuisine than Vodka and rye bread.

Altogether I had highly mixed feelings about this book. I enjoyed the playful parts with the house goblins and their silly bureaucratic jargon but centering everything about the abuse that is there to explain everything feels just foolish, especially as the retelling gives a reason why a warrior Queen would imprison death. Somehow it takes away so much from a strong female character. I’m not to say that abuse isn’t a real thing, and it doesn’t affect a person and the path they will take. It will. It more than does. But I don’t care about romanticizing it. That said, maybe I misread the book and didn’t see the nuances behind Deathless and Marya Morvena’s relationship. It’s always a possibility.

Thank you for reading, and have a great day ❤

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