Synopsis (from Goodreads):
Koschei the Deathless is to Russian folklore what devils or wicked witches are to European culture: a menacing, evil figure; the villain of countless stories which have been passed on through story and text for generations. But Koschei has never before been seen through the eyes of Catherynne Valente, whose modernized and transformed take on the legend brings the action to modern times, spanning many of the great developments of Russian history in the twentieth century.
Deathless, however, is no dry, historical tome: it lights up like fire as the young Marya Morevna transforms from a clever child of the revolution, to Koschei’s beautiful bride, to his eventual undoing. Along the way there are Stalinist house elves, magical quests, secrecy and bureaucracy, and games of lust and power.
I’ve read some reviews of this one written by people of Russian descent who proclaimed Ms Valente a honorary Russian. I partially agree – she certainly gets a feeling of old Russian folk tales like nobody else. Still she also has a gift to spin a completely new story out of them with so many original twists and turns that she leaves the tales pretty much unrecognizable. It is incredible and rare.
All the ingredients are taken from folk tales collected by Alexander Afanasyev in Narodnye russkie skazki which have been told from times immemorial: The evil Koschei the Deathless who menaces young women with his magic and Baba-Yaga, a witch who likes eating human flesh; the kidnapped Marya Morevna (or Yelena, or Vasilisa), the brave Ivan who rescues her. Then we got a twist after a twist. Koschei can be handsome and he is truly in love with his kidnapped bride. She loves him right back but she also feels a kind of love for poor Ivan, her rescuer. Still you are not exactly sure who rescues whom – Marya Ivan from an almost certain death of a soldier or Ivan Marya from turning into a demon?
To make things even more convoluted the author set the novel during 1941-1943 Leningrad siege – arguably one of the most lethal sieges in history. Thousands of people froze and starved to death – several hundred per day during the particularly vicious winter of 1942. People ate sawdust bread, chalk, sparrows, rats, pets, and each other. People fell down and died right on the streets, sometimes the whole families during just several weeks. And yet the city – the Leningraders – never gave up. Such a melding of myth, materialism, history, supernatural and Soviet history I found simply mesmerizing. Birds that turn into husbands and domoviye that take care of houses inhabit the same fictional space as communist officers, soldiers and spies.
Finally. One brilliant book without any doubts. If there’s one way to sum up how this one made me feel, it is with this quote: There is a hole in me like a bullet.
I don’t expect that hole to be filled any time soon.