Review: Deathless

Posted: July 11, 2011 by in Books We Love (5/5 single_star) Meta: Catherynne M. Valente, Fantasy

I actually finished reading this book quite a while ago and have been trying to think of how I would review it. Is it a good book? Of course it is. It’s written by Catherynne M. Valente, and I’m convinced now that she has some sort of magical pen that turns everything she writes into gold (and if she doesn’t use a pen then it must be a magical computer. Wish I knew where to get one like it). Does it contain beautiful writing, weird and wonderful characters and imagery that makes you weep it’s so gorgeous? Yes and for the same reasons as above. Yet still I’m not sure how to talk about it.

So let’s just dive right in, shall we?

DEATHLESS (Amazon) is based on old Slavic folklore. I was interested enough in what Valente was playing with that I tried to learn a bit more about Koschei the Deathless. According to Wikipedia (the source of all wisdom) Koschei is an archetypal male antagonist that runs off with the hero’s wife. The only other information that it mentions is that the only way to kill Koschei the Deathless is to break a needle, which is hidden in an egg, which is in a duck, which is in a hare, which is in an iron chest buried under an oak tree on an island in the middle of the ocean. Sounds perfect for Valente to go to work with. And she does. The story centers on Marya Morevna who is stolen away to be Koschei’s bride. She learns to live in the land of the dead, deals with the Babba Yagga (another delightful folktale) and various other exploits. All of this is set against war-time Russia. I know I’m missing several things about it, but you get the idea.

Let’s get this straight from the start. Like all of Valente’s work, it’s gorgeous. It’s not a book (for me at least) that I would get so lost in the story that I lost track of time and suddenly it was four hours later. This is the type of book that you read slowly, delicately, savoring and devouring each sentence. You are very conscious that you are reading, but you are enthralled with the beauty of it.

Second, Valente’s imagination is second to none. The images and characters on display in any of her books are like candy for the brain. For a living I draw characters for video games. It’s what I do day in and day out, draw draw draw (when I’m not reading that is), and every time I open a Valente book I’m tempted at each page to visually bring to life the weird and wonderful creatures Valente describes. Go ahead and try it. Open one of her books to a random page and you’ll be hard-pressed not to find something fantastical, whimsical, and wonderful.

Something that I found strange about the book was the way it was written. It started at the beginning of the story and went sequentially until the end. Why is that odd? Because it’s Catherynne M. Valente writing it. In all of her previous works that I have read the story meanders, in the past and present, sliding sideways or off on tangents altogether. It was an interesting experience to be told a story so simply by Valente.

DEATHLESS author Catherynne M. Valente must have some sort of magical pen that turns everything she writes into gold. How does she do it?

Really the major problem I had with the book were the characters, and it was mostly the regular old humans that I couldn’t relate to. When weird creatures enter the story I don’t expect to relate to them, they are creatures. But when a human is in a book, I expect to understand them, to understand their decisions and I really didn’t get that here. Maybe I just don’t get the Russian mindset. I don’t know. For whatever reason, there were several instances where Marya would do something and I had no idea why she did it. Her actions were as random as any of the wild fairytale creatures that populated the rest of the story. It made it hard for me to care for Marya or get too attached to her.

It’s a small quibble really. Thinking about it, and writing this review I realize just how much I enjoyed DEATHLESS, like all of Valente’s work. Sorry this took so long to get to you guys. Let’s all make up for it by reading some of Valente’s work. Pick one, they’re all good.

  • Recommended Age: 16+ for some sexual situations and really high vocabulary level
  • Language: Honestly don't recall. Which means it probably wasn't much or I would remember
  • Violence: A little, not much
  • Sex: A bit of sexual talk, a few situations. Nowhere near as much as PALIMPSEST (EBR Review)

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