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Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente

Deathless (edition 2012)

by Catherynne M. Valente

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5633517,691 (4.04)67
Authors:Catherynne M. Valente
Info:Tor Books (2012), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 352 pages
Collections:Your library

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Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente

2011 (6) ebook (10) fairy tale (5) fairy tales (33) fantasy (131) fiction (67) folklore (13) folktales (6) historical (5) historical fantasy (6) historical fiction (8) history (7) Kindle (10) magic (5) mythology (13) novel (9) read (5) retelling (13) Russia (48) Russian (6) russian folklore (6) sf (6) sff (7) signed (5) Soviet Union (6) to-read (67) unread (4) war (7) wishlist (6) WWII (6)

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Showing 1-5 of 35 (next | show all)

Didn't quite work for me, I'm afraid. Heartfelt and detailed evocation of Russian legends and how they might have played out for real in the early years of Stalinism, and I picked up amusing references to those excellent books The Twelve Chairs and The Master and Margarita, but I didn't care about the characters very much. Obviously appeals to a lot of people so I'm in a minority here. ( )
1 vote nwhyte | May 16, 2014 |
Deathless is beautifully written, meticulously constructed and symbolically rich- yet, ultimately disappointing. While wonderfully crafted, the novel lacks heart. After 349 pages, the characters are still strangers, interesting to observe, but for whom the reader has no true connection. The characters are flat, like those in a fairytale. Their wants, needs, and dreams are never revealed to the reader, and, despite the long time span covered by this book, no one ever changes or grows. The weak characters can almost be excused for the lovely prose and raw, earthy Russian setting, yet ultimately I just didn't like this book.

C ( )
  ashleynicole1030 | May 5, 2014 |
An ambitious novel that weaves traditional Russian folk lore amid Russia’s turbulent history between 1930-1940. A girl becomes the bride of an immortal entity that rules a dark macabre realm and realizes she is repeating a story that has been played out many times before.

Deathless has poetic prose and the cadence of a classic legend. I felt the story had a deeper meaning that I wasn't quite able to grasp because of my limited knowledge of Russian culture, history and folk lore. There are recurring themes and philosophies about life, death, love, loss, and war that makes the story hauntingly beautiful. I enjoyed how the author interwove and reinterpreted creatures, entities, and stories from Russian folk lore and mythology. I also appreciated the respect and diligence the author undertook in providing a credible story from a different nationality. I found the overall story to be incredibly sad, my soul aches and I’m sure it won’t leave my thoughts anytime soon. ( )
  eloquent_codex | Apr 14, 2014 |
I wanted to be dazzled, baptized, converted. Instead I was mostly befuddled. This is one of those unusual cases where I felt like the author's careful attention to the cadences of the prose actually detracted from the story. I was so busy nodding my head along to the rhythms of the words that I felt like characterization and plot slipped past me. Contrast this with my readings of Juliet Marillier's works, in which I am sucked so thoroughly into the lives of the characters that everything else--world-building, prose, plot--only added to the thrill of my emotional investment. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'm realizing now how essential my attachment to the characters are to my enjoyment of a story, and that sometimes pretty words aren't going to cut it. ( )
1 vote stephxsu | Jan 5, 2014 |
I think every reader has had this experience: you pick up a book and immediately fall into its pages. Something--the plot, the setting, the style--enchants you, and you speed on, certain that this is going to be a five-star read, one of those books that you make sure you can always find on your bookcase so it is easily retrievable for a re-read. Or maybe it might even--you can scarcely hope--become one of those wonderful rare books that you don't ever dare to visit again just to keep the magical feeling of discovery intact. Whatever your plans for the book, you turn the pages faster, with a great big smile on your face and then...something happens, and you can feel your smile starting to drop away. Maybe one of the characters says something that seems out of place, or there's a kink in the plot that you just can't accept, or there is a stylistic hiccup of the author that becomes a tad wearisome. More often, though, the story just seems to run out of steam slightly. Something seems to have gone ever so faintly wrong, but you're not quite sure what it is, and you end up closing the book with a trace of a frown on your face and a vague feeling of disappointment in your heart. You still like the book, perhaps even sort of love the book, but it is not going to make your list of all-time favorites, and you spend more time wondering what went awry and why you are feeling a bit baffled than thinking over the many aspects of the book that thrilled you in the first place. These are the hardest books for me to read, and the most difficult reviews for me to write, because I'm kind of fumbling around to express my reservations about a book that I did enjoy. A great deal. So much of [b:Deathless|8694389|Deathless|Catherynne M. Valente|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1316635864s/8694389.jpg|10733651] was absolutely terrific, but for me the novel went off the rails somewhat, and ended up being not all that this greatly gifted author could have made of it.

[b:Deathless|8694389|Deathless|Catherynne M. Valente|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1316635864s/8694389.jpg|10733651] is Valente's re-working of the classic Slavic fairy tales, starting in the last days of imperial Russia, and carrying through the events--or I should say cataclysms--of the revolution, collectivization, WWII, and ending with the purges under Stalin. All the famous figures of the folktales are here--Baba Yaga the Boney Legged, Vassilisa the Wise (OK, here she's called Marya, and there's a subplot over the name that comes the closest Valente gets to a sly, long-running joke), the intrepid Ivan, and Koschei the Deathless and his brother Viy. Plus there are rusalki, and domoviye and leshy and firebirds--all present and accounted for. In fact, that might be part of the problem; there's almost too much wonderfulness crammed in here; too many colorful characters, too many gleaming samovars, too many birch-whipped saunas; it ends up being almost indigestible.

Rich, too, is Valente's language. It's been described as poetic, maybe even rather purple. I happen to like this sort of style, but I can understand that other readers might find it a bit much. What's more, you know that Valente knows that she's a superb stylist; there is, perhaps, just a shade of self-awareness in the linguistic games she's playing that borders on the arch. You've heard of authors that could re-write the phone book and make it compelling? Well, here's Valente's take on slicing a loaf of bread:

"The crust crackled under his knife and the slice fell, moist and heavy as earth. He spread cold, salted butter over it with a sweep of the blade, and scooped caviar onto the butter, a smear of dark eggs against the pale gold cream...The taste of it burst in her mouth, the salt and the sea. Tears sprang in her eyes. Her empty belly sang for the thickness of it, the plenty..."

Well, I found the description rather mesmerizing, but other readers might deem it rather gooey. Back to the plot, and trying to analyze the book without spoilers:

As I've said, this is Valente's re-telling of the classic Russian fairy tales in a modern setting. Sometimes the two worlds are braided together, sometimes they are fused, and sometimes they lay together side by side, not quite touching. It's a complex system, but no one ever said that Valente doesn't demand a great deal from her reader. Much of the time this works well, with the real-world realities and the dream world of the fairy tale reinforcing each other and adding to each world's power. It's especially effective in the middle of the book, when the Deathless One whisks Marya off to his kingdom (and this is no spoiler; this is the fairy tale part, so you know there will be a Spiriting Away) and Marya must do her Three Appointed Tasks to win Koschei the Deathless. This is the best part of the book; "Chairman" Yaga is a scream--but how can she not be--she's Baba Yaga--and her edicts to "almost-soup" Marya are laugh-aloud funny. Marya's helpers, too, are great, especially Lebedeva, with her eyelids carefully painted to match the soup of the day.

And then Ivan shows up (and this in no spoiler either, this is a fairy tale, so you know there will be a Rescue, even if the sort-of princess doesn't seem to be too enthusiastic about the plan) and here, perhaps, was where my interest started to falter. Ivan is so dull, and I realized, during her interactions with her erstwhile rescuer, that Marya is, too, a bit. The blandly heroic twosome and the enigmatic Koschei function best in the fairy tale world, where the reader doesn't expect depth in the characterizations, or any consistency--or any real sense--in their actions. Fortunately, however, after some less than enthralling lovers's chit-chat, there was another fairy tale-ish adventure, and I could feel myself getting really interested again. There's something very hypnotic about the power of the three-three-three, and Valente takes advantage of it as Vassilisa--I mean Marya--and her lover travel back to Leningrad. And then they're back--just in time to face the siege of Leningrad, and my real problems with the book began.

Nataliya, in her excellent review here on GR, quite rightly singles out chapter 23 as the emotional heart of the book; the "real world" part of the book, anyway. The first part of the chapter is devastating, even though Marya and Ivan--especially Ivan--continue to be as flat as the paper they're printed on. (Perhaps, at this part of the book, the plot demands more than the two can deliver; they're excellent and satisfying when they are paper dolls performing against the fairy tale backdrop but the worst siege in world history deserves a more flesh and blood response. There's no point, however, in demanding three-dimensional behavior; they are, after all, figures from a fable.) The fates of the pair that share their house, and of the people that share their city are described very movingly. But then, just as things go from terrible to horrific--people are scraping off wallpaper paste and boiling it down to eat, and one doesn't even want to think about what kind of meat is being bartered for jewels in the marketplace--Valente shifts gears again. It seems to me that this would have been the place to reintroduce the task of the three, and instead she goes for...a little light bondage. What? Huh? Maybe her editor said "Catherynne, I know of a way to really boost your sales--you need to aim for the angsty-love with-flowing-dress-on-the-cover market, so just add this spicy interlude." Or maybe she's been influenced by the Twilighting of our times. Who knows--maybe she just wanted to explore her inner dominatrix. All that I can say is that it just did not work for me.

And then Valente skitters away from the starving city as if she just cannot bear the realities of the war and the world she has copied. There's another jump, another interlude that is fascinating, but bewildering, and then another lurch back. And this time, instead of the two halves strengthening each other, it just undercuts both plot lines. I ended up not caring as much about what happens to the characters as I should have.

It also left me a little confused, to be honest. What was Valente trying to say, exactly? I don't really know, and I am not sure that she knows, but that could be just me not fully grasping the point she was trying to make. All that I do understand is that the end is messy and ambiguous--like the real world. Which is fine if it's just about the real world, but maybe a bit of fairy tale tie-everything-up-in-a-neat-bow certitude might have helped the book, and given it that feeling of timeless wisdom that fairy tales can do so well. What I do know, too, is that "Deathless" did not pack the emotional wallop that
[b:The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making|9591398|The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (Fairyland, #1)|Catherynne M. Valente|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1317793528s/9591398.jpg|6749837] (and yes, the style is as impossibly twee as the title suggests, but it suits the story Valente is crafting) had for me. I admired the risks that the author took, and I'll be reading more of her work, but I won't be mentally shelving this book in the row of my absolute favorites. ( )
  gaeta1 | Nov 9, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 35 (next | show all)
Another intricate fantasy from Valente, based on what feels like the entire panoply of Russian folktales. ...scenes, people, myths and history intertwine. It's dazzling but intensely self-involved.
added by melonbrawl | editKirkus Reviews (Feb 1, 2011)
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From the year nineteen forty
I look out on everything as if from a high tower
As if bidding farewell
To that from which I long ago parted.
As if crossing myself
And descending beneath dark arches.
—Anna Akhmatova
For Dmitri,
who spirited me away from a dark place
First words
Woodsmoke hung heavy and golden on the shorn wheat, the earth bristling like an old, bald woman.
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.
“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.”
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 offence. 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.
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Set in an alternate version of St. Petersburg in the first half of the twentieth century, Marya Morevna, a clever child of the revolution, is transformed into the beautiful bride of Koschei the Deathless, a menacing overlord.

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