Child of the revolution, maiden of myth, bride of darkness
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.
Koschei leads Marya to his kingdom, where she becomes a warrior in his tireless battle against his own brother, the Tsar of Death.
Years pass. Battle-hardened, scarred by love, and longing for respite, Marya returns to St Petersburg – only to discover a place as pitiful as the land she has just fled: a starveling city, haunted by death.
Deathless is quite difficult to describe in a way. It is a fairytale retelling, but if you expected a fairytale ending, you would be mistaken. It is dark, and morbid and unforgiving towards its characters, but I guess Life is like that. The story starts and ends with Marya, the bride of Koschei the Deathless, and if like me you read up the Wiki for it before starting the book, you know a few elements of the story. Those elements are repeated in a circular way, making for a lyrical prose around the theme of her marriage to him, about her wanting a better life in a world that has gone to hell. The fact that the fantasy elements are overlaid over a Russia between the two world wars adds a morose twist to the original – Marya, wanting to escape a hard life, is thrust into another cruel war where her innocence is stripped from her. She grows from a girl with the other world in her eyes, to a hardened woman who has seen too much and wishes for it to end.
As interesting as Marya is, the story is in itself a challenge to your senses. It is not kind, not rosy, the happy moments are sparse and you never know what is going to happen. If you were expecting it to be Cruel Beauty-esque or Koschei to be like the Darkling, well, you will have wished for more than you could take. Because he is infinitely more cruel, but also soft for her. Their romance (if you could call it that) is violent and filled with hurt, and love, and wanting and all the things that you wish you never would have to face because they are too intense – I was not a fan of it. Ivan was bound to be hated since he entered, because by that time you were hoping for the story to go on another track, but it does what you do not expect. The story sets a nice plot but the pacing is slow. At lots of times, I was confused as to what was happening, and what it meant and querying whether it had any deeper meaning, because I am shit at metaphors.
The world-building of the book, of course, is marvelous. Valente builds up a newly revolutionized St Petersberg in all its stark colors, and then adds on a freakishly morbid but colorful country of Life, and the verdant land of Yaichka, and then spins Marya’s story through all these places, carrying her journey through them as sure as the plot carried it. Marya’s happiness is the thing she chases every time, and because it cannot last because of the nature of each of those places, the plot moves on. The ending, well, it was hard to take in, but it suited the tone of the book. Overall, I would say it is a dark, intense book but if you love folklore and fairytales, I would say go for it.