A book I know I will read again and again, Deathless is Catherynne M. Valente's stunning homage to Russian folklore. Koschei the Deathless, the Tsar of Life, is an antagonistic figure in Russian folklore. I cannot do an adequate job expressing the plot of this tour de force. Essentially, the story of Koschei (which you do not need to know in order to read this novel) is set against twentieth century Russia. The protagonist is Marya Morevna, who "transforms from a clever child of the revolution, to Koschei's beautiful bride, to his eventual undoing." Deathless combines magical history with actual history. Not only did I learn these century-old stories (or Valente's interpretation of this folklore), you understand Russian history as you read.
As one review writes, "Yes, the book is about a Russian folklore, but it’s also greatly in juxtaposition with Stalinist-era Russia and essentially- war. It is grounded deeply in both its principle worlds, and those double back on each other all the time, so it can get a bit confusing. Marya moves between these worlds, fighting in a war between Koschei and Viy, (a war they’ve been waging since time began), and surviving during the siege of Leningrad in 20th century Russia." Sounds confusing, I know. I was lost for the first few chapters, and definitely confused at the start of each section (they correlate to different parts of Marya's life; time jumps are always confusing). All sections begin with a poem of Anna Akhmatova, a Russian modernist poet who experienced the Russia Marya lives in. This book was so intriguing and rich that I simply could not put it down. Even though it was folklore retold, it felt new and exciting. To end with a quote from the novel:
That's how you get deathless, volchitsa. Walk the same tale over and over, until you wear a groove in the world, until even if you vanished, the tale would keep turning, keep playing, like a phonograph, and you'd have to get up again, even with a bullet through your eye, to play your part and say your lines.
! Rating: ★★★★★