You may have heard of Catherynne M. Valente. She is the author of the Fairyland series, you know, that children’s book series with the lovely covers and the really long titles? (The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two, and coming soon: The Boy Who Lost Fairyland.) They are impressive books. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland is one of those books, and Catherynne Valente one of those authors, that make a reader feel like every single word is perfect. Every single one. Deathless was no different.
Valente is a master wordsmith, a poet, and a storyteller. With every sentence in each new book (she writes quickly, she says, as her backlist of published works will attest), she proves again that poetry has its place in prose, can improve it, can make a story dance and sing the way that “invisible prose” is not equipped to do. In the hands of a less capable author, a poetic flourish might obscure. In the hands of Valente poetry serves the story, serves the reader, arrives like a golden apple on a silver plate. Take a bite from the first paragraph of Deathless:
“Woodsmoke hung heavy and golden on the shorn wheat, the earth bristling like an old, bald woman. The apple trees had long ago been stripped for kindling; the cherry roots long since dug up and boiled into meal. The sky sagged cold and wan, coughing spatters of phlegmatic sunlight onto the grey and empty farms. The birds had gone, arrows flung forth in invisible skirmishes, always south, always away. Yet three skinny, molting creatures clapped a withered pear branch in their claws, peering down with eyes like rosary beads: a gold-speckled plover, a sharp-billed shrike, and a bony, black-faced rook clutched the greenbark trunk. A wind picked up; it smelled of clover growing through the roof, rust, and old, dry marrow.”
It is the kind of prose that makes a reader pause, lean back, close her eyes, and revel. This is the kind of prose I want to bathe in, to inhale like a delicate but poignant perfume, to wrap around my arms and wear to a fancy party with caviar and champagne.
The narrative of Deathless reimagines the Russian folk tale of Koschei the Deathless while—perhaps even unbeknowst to the reader—following the trajectory of Russian history down the years. I was unfamiliar with both the folklore and the majority of the history, however my own lacking knowledge did not diminish the book’s returns, but rather lay beneath the story, warming it, a kind but gentle reminder that there were worlds below and beyond to follow to their roots if I choose to take that journey. I think it is safe to say this book would stand up well to a re-reading. Just re-reading the first paragraph, as I typed it in the text above, illuminated details that meant more to me as Someone Who Has Read This Book Once Already.
The story within Deathless is epic—without being that thing that is called Epic Fantasy. Woven amidst its beautifully named chapters (chapter names begging to become song titles) are explorations of love, marriage, war, death, life, revolution, magic, and potential. It is tragic and beautiful and beautifully tragic, and simultaneously manages to be funny from time to time (Valente, in my reading of her work so far, appears to be particularly good at this trick). Example: our hero is sent to fight a dragon. Turns out that dragon is a bureaucrat for the Party, a paper pusher who revels in having anti-revolutionaries executed, a beast far more frightful than scales and fire it turns out. Pure genius. Possibly my favorite literary dragon ever. Thanks for that, Madame Valente, thanks very, very much.
Can I show you another piece of Valente’s prose? Because if that first paragraph did not have you convinced that her skill is beyond that of almost everyone putting pen to paper today, this one will:
“Look, I am holding up my two hands, and between them is Leningrad. I am holding up my two hands and between them is a black space where Marya Morevna is not speaking. She would like to, because she thinks a story is like a treasure, and can belong only to one dragon. But I make her share; I will not let her have the whole thing. I have this power. I will not let her speak because I love her, and when you love someone you do not make them tell war stories. A war story is a black space. On the one side is before and on the other side is after, and what is inside belongs only to the dead.”
The woman can write. Holy shit.
If you could possibly still be wondering whether or not you should read this book (or perhaps buy it for someone else), I will offer yet another carrot. Do you know any literary snobs? The kind of person who turns up their nose at fantasy and science fiction? Well buy them this book this book. Buy yourself this book. It’s a game changer.
Eight out of nine and a half russian house elves.
Where I got it: The Book Depository