Catherynne M Valente’s Deathless is a beautiful Russian fairy-tale set in the Stalinist era, brilliantly conceived and executed. Masha is the youngest of four sisters in Petrograd and, over the years, she has watched the birds come for her sisters. They thump against the windows and fall to the ground and spring up as soldiers and thump again on the door and beg to be wed to the girl in the window.
When the Soviet nationalizes her home and moves 11 other families into it, Masha becomes a girl with 12 mothers, and no bird comes for her, but the house elf, the domovoi, reveals itself to her, and brings her to the Domovoi’s Committee, where all 12 families’ house-elves have formed a congress to decide how best to run their shared home. With their advice, she finds a witch, who gives her a book and tells her where to find a hairbrush, and these, at last, conjure a husband for her.
But Masha’s husband is no soldier: he is Koschei, the Tsar of Life, and he spirits her across the steppes to his kingdom, where he is locked, as always, in fierce battle with his brother, the Tsar of Death. There, Masha becomes a consort and dreams of becoming a queen, but she cannot, not until she has completed the quests of Baba Yaga, the sister of the Tsar of Life, who now styles herself Chairman Yaga.
From this unflowers a lyrical, beautiful story about the war between lovers, the war over life, the beauty and the terror of revolutionary dreams. Valente’s prose is transporting, and her instincts for when to draw a section to a close and insert a gap of years or decades for best effect is flawless. This is a book that broods but never stoops to cynicism, a book full of dream-logic and eros. Valente is a major talent, and this is some of her best work.
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