Over the years Marya Morevna has watched three birds turn into three husbands, one for each of her sisters. Now she waits for her own bird to rescue her from the cramped living quarters and the constant hunger that have become her existence. But Marya has not prepared herself to receive the attentions of Kocshei the Deathless. Can she rewrite the story Koschei has played out so many times or will she become just another plaything for the Tsar of Life to throw away?
In this expansive novel Catherynne Valente utterly transforms the Russian tale “The Death of Koschei the Deathless” from a standard story of a captive girl rescued by her lover to a sweeping saga of love, death, and war, all centered, not on a helpless maiden but on a hardened warrior woman. A world of magic blends seamlessly with the Russia of the early 1900s, making readers believe in the fantastic, but also revealing the stark truth that magic cannot save a person from reality.
Valente’s story, much like her protagonist, begins innocently. Marya Morevna witnesses a bird transform into a husband, one for each of her sisters, three times. (Three, as readers of fairy tales know, is a magical number.) These handsome suitors bring with them the promise of happily-ever-after–wealth, food, security. At first Marya does not appreciate such promises. She revels only in the magic, the delightful knowledge of having seen the curtain between two worlds torn away. Her longing for what magic can provide for her, rather than her simple delight in the magic itself, is the beginning of her transformation.
For Marya Morevna in this story proves no weak maiden waiting for rescue from her beloved husband Ivan. Instead she is a girl possessed of a fiery spirit longing for change and adventure, a girl who will find herself changed into a woman by war. For the unbearable truth of this novel is that magic changes nothing. Jealousy, hunger, pain, war, and death all coexist with magic. Even the party slogans that characterize life in the Soviet Union have found their way into the mythical land of Buyan, and that the creatures there form committees to file complains, practice their interrogation skills, and threaten to inform on each other. Life in Buyan with the Tsar of Life will prove nearly as painful to Marya as life in Leningrad.
Of course, in Koschei Marya believes that she has found something that makes the pain worthwhile. Her love for him keeps her fighting his war even while she believes she can go back to a more innocent life if she left. Yet her reasoning never resonated with me. Koschei, after all, has spirited away countless girls. His sister crudely informs Marya that being “deathless” does not mean Koschei has no physical desires. And he continues to pursue other partners to fulfill those desires once he marries Marya. Their open marriage read to me as being one of lust, not of love. They never meet each other without tearing at one another and speaking of their passion. They never have a conversation about what the other means to them, never indicate that they appreciate each other for qualities other than the physical. Marya thinks she loves Koschei, but the two never acted in a way that convinced me that either loved the other at all. And that made the story fall flat.
For how can I feel for Marya being torn between two worlds if all that keeps her in Buyan is a sleeping partner? On the other hand, how was I supposed to wish Marya to go off with Ivan to lead a more innocent life (as if innocence still existed then with the war!) if she is already married? How can I feel her pain about either Ivan or Koschei when she does not seem to love either of them, but only what they represent, what they can provide? This book is in many ways a romance, but, for me, the most powerful parts dealt with suffering and the loss of innocence, and not with love at all. In this book, marriage is, as the characters repeatedly say, nothing more than a fight for domination. The kind of love that seeks the good of the other person seems not to be present at all. And if love is not present, how can romance be?
In the end, I could not love Deathless as I wanted to. It proves too uneven a book, uncertain about its center. It wants to be about love, but says more about death and war. It takes an interesting look at magic by postulating that magic really changes nothing, but at times abandons that thought to focus on a romance that made no sense to me. I still cannot decide. Is the book trying to say that love can make even suffering bearable, that love is still worthwhile? Or is it just a depressing look at the unending misery that is life, no matter how one tries to escape?