“Haven’t you ever heard a story about Koschei? He’s only got the one. Act One, Scene One: pretty girl. Act One, Scene Two: pretty girl gone!”
Russian folklore, revolutionary rhetoric and the power of storytelling intertwine in Catherynne M. Valente’s Deathless, in which a young girl finds herself whisked away from Stalinist Petrograd by Koschei the Deathless, Tsar of Life and her husband-to-be.
In a land where the buildings are alive and the fountains run with blood, Koschei is locked in a permanent battle with his brother Viy, Tsar of Death, and Marya has to fight to survive. But if she wants to make it to her wedding day, she first has to pass the tests set by their sister, Chairman Baba Yaga to prove herself a worthy bride.
Baba Yaga steals the show, a wise-cracking crone whose tongue is as sharp as her claws, but it is Marya’s development from daydreaming young girl to battle-scarred warrior queen that drives the plot. As much as Deathless is about Russia and folklore and war, it is also about Marya’s longing to find herself represented in the books that provide her escape. The realisation that she might just be one more embodiment of an archetype – Koschei has a factory full of human girls he has stolen away then tired of – is both the heartbreaking discovery that she isn’t the first girl he’s loved, and a harsh reminder that fairytales rarely choose the quiet bookworm as the heroine.
A certain kind of reader might recognise shades of Jareth the Goblin King from Labyrinth in Koschei. This almighty ruler, brought to his knees by a near-obsessive love of a human girl, warns her “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.”
A folktale reimagined during the Siege of Leningrad might not seem the likeliest setting for an exploration of BDSM and polyamory, but Valente explores Marya’s sexuality and her relationships from a bold, fresh angle. When Ivan, a young soldier, inadvertently stumbles on Marya in full warrior queen mode, she refuses the trap masquerading as a traditional love triangle that her predecessors have been caught in. Instead, she redefines both marriage and affair on her terms. And any folktale that features a demigod chained in a woman’s basement is crying out for a less-than-vanilla interpretation – the erotic nature of the relationship between Koschei and Marya, and later Marya and Ivan, is handled with a knowing wink.
Deathless is easily one of the best fantasy novels of 2012, and possibly Valente’s finest novel to date. Along with the rich, textured language we’ve come to expect from her – it’s impossible to forget that she started out as a poet – she gives us a lush, feminist interpretation of an already twisted and strange folktale that many Western readers will be unfamiliar with. It is to her credit that she makes the magical realms of Koschei and his siblings and war-torn, poverty-stricken Russia at once both entirely alien and completely recognisable.