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Deathless by Catherynne M Valente

10/10 Full of unique and fascinating characters.

A handsome young man arrives in St Petersburg at the house of Marya Morevna. He is Koschei, the Tsar of Life, and he is Marya's fate. For years she follows him in love and in war, and bears the scars. But eventually Marya returns to her birthplace - only to discover a starveling city, haunted by death. Deathless is a fierce story of life and death, love and power, old memories, deep myth and dark magic, set against the history of Russia in the twentieth century.

A swirling mix of Russian folk tales and The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov is the best way I can describe Deathless, which unfolds in a fantastical and beautifully written tale of love, life, death, and desire. Marya Morevna is a girl who can see the unseen – when young men come to the front door to ask for her sisters in marriage she sees them first appear as birds who crash to the ground and turn into men. Growing up against the background of a world based upon Revolutionary and Soviet Russia, where the cold and starvation are turned into a figure of the Tsar of Death walking the streets, Marya meets her husband, Koschei, the Tsar of Life and is taken away by him to a fantastical land where a constant war is fought between life and death, mirroring the various conflicts of early 20th Century Russia.

It is extremely difficult to explain what Deathless is about; it just has to be read. I bought it after reading Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo - which has been criticized for its less than exact use of Russian imagery and words - as it was recommended as being a good example of Russian-themed fantasy, and it is such a rich, imagery-laden world of allegory and symbolism that it really is in another league. Marya is a link between the ‘real’ world and the magical world – both the slave and mistress of Koschei – and as her fate leads her inexorably down the path to stay with Koschei and fight his endless war, or give in to the simpler, sunny charms of another, mortal, man, the story rolls on, as it always has and always will. Marya’s story, like The Master and Margarita, uses fantastical situations and characters to personify the realities of Soviet Russia, where the state held complete control of life and death.

Full of unique and fascinating characters, Valente weaves fairy-tale storytelling with a far more adult world of war, sex, love and will. The metaphor can get a bit overmuch now and again, slowing down the flow of the story in places, but Deathless is a really unusual and interesting book that was a joy to read.

For a different view and a far more in depth discussion, read this review by Erin Horáková who considers it to be a ‘problematic’ novel.

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