Catherynne Valente understands the power of threes, of repetition and incantation, the stuff of fairy tales. In Deathless, her powerful evocation of old Russian fairy tales, she uses both the matter and the style of stories from outside the realm of ordinary time to capture something about real, cruel, and tragic history that might otherwise be inexpressible.
The real history is that of Russia under the last tsar and the first communists, culminating in the siege of Leningrad during World War II. But this part of the story is never in the foreground. Instead, Valente weaves her plot from a wealth of magical tales that comment on that time, and somehow, redeem it.
Marya waits in a window, until at last her husband comes to her: and he is Koschei the Deathless, Tsar of Life, who spirits her away to his kingdom in the east. Many fearful and beloved figures of Russian folklore come to life here, the house fairies behind the hearth, Baba Yaga with her chicken-legged wagon, the firebird itself, glowing in the forest.
The war in the fairy tale world, between the Tsar of Life and the Tsar of Death, reconnects Marya with the war in the “real” world, where the Nazis are attacking Stalin’s Russia. How the world of the imagination succors and ultimately saves the other is the theme of this ambitious and extraordinary novel. Scraps of poetry by Anna Akhmatova, spooky and elliptical, reinforce the many-leveled feel of the book. A wonderful piece of work.