Once upon a time there was a fairy tale that lived in the far-off snowy land of Russia. It was fairly typical as fairy tales go. It involved a magical prince who was unable to die, a brave and resourceful girl, magic birds, the witch Baba Yaga, and a not very bright lad called Ivan. For a long time the fairy story lived happily in the land of Russia. The people there loved to tell it to their children, and it loved to be told. But then, as often happens these days, the world changed, and people forgot about fairy tales. Our story found itself unwanted, untold, unloved. The people said that it had no relevance to modern Russia. It didn’t really know what that meant, but it knew it was bad.
Then one day a young writer came across the fairy tale. She was that sort of writer who was rather fond of magical stories, and she was also fond of the land of Russia. She didn’t like to see a story in distress.
“Tell me, little story,” the writer asked, “why are you so sad? Why do the people of Russia no longer tell you to their children?”
“Oh, lady writer,” said the story, “I am not relevant any more. First there was Comrade Lenin. Then there was Comrade Stalin. Then the Germans came and everyone died. After that there were lots of new Comrades, so many that I lose track of who was who, and what we are supposed to believe these days. I don’t know what name to call St. Petersburg any more.”
The lady writer was moved to tears. “That’s a terrible fate to befall a story,” she said. “But don’t be so sad. Telling stories is my job. Come home with me. With a little effort, I’m sure I can help you to be relevant again. Let me work on you. By the time I’m done you’ll be much more suited to the modern world. You’ll be longer too. Hey, you might even grow into a novel! At the very least, I promise that you won’t die.”
“That at least I do know, said the fairy tale. For I am a story of Koschei the Deathless. His soul is hidden inside a needle, which is in an egg, which is in a duck, which is in a hare, which is in an iron chest, which is buried under a green oak tree far away. As long as his soul is safe, he cannot die, and neither can I. Besides, you remind me of my plucky heroine, Marya Morevna. Let us see what magic we can weave together.”
And so it was that the fairy tale went with the lady writer to a far off land called Maine, where it snows a lot so the story felt quite at home. The writer was named Cat, though she didn’t have a tail, just lots of tales. She was as good as her word. She gave the story lots more scenes and several of fun new characters. There are rusalkas, a leshy and a swan maiden. There are domovoi, gnome-like house spirits, who have formed their own Komityet to make sure that they do their business according to proper Marxist-Leninist principles. There’s Naganya the vintovnik, an imp who is half-rifle and loves putting suspect comrades to the question. And there is Viy, the Tsar of Death, who fights an unending battle with Koschei for the souls of the world.
Viy likes the Germans. They find him an unreliable ally.
And so the story was happy once more. Not always happy inside, of course, for no story is happy for all of its length. Terrible things happen, especially in stories that contain Baba Yaga, Viy and old one-eyed General Frost, the chief of the army of the Rus. But stories can have happy endings. Our little story is now a grown up novel called Deathless, after Koschei who is it’s heart, even though he has no soul. Lots of people are reading it. Cat, I hope, is happy too, for she has done a fine piece of work. Would that all stories had someone to take care of them so well.
Deathless is a novel by Catherynne M. Valente. Baba Yaga appears in this review by kind permission of her agent and a substantial bribe. Koschei the Deathless would like to know if you have any marriageable daughters, preferably pretty, because he needs a new queen. Failure to buy this book may result in your being brought before the Domovoi Komityet of your residence on suspicion of counter-revolutionary activities and incorrect thought.
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4 thoughts on “Deathless”
I’m quite disturbed by the implications you’re making. A story-in-distress that needed rescuing by an American author? OMG! Commies made Russians forget their folk tales! Let’s reeducate them!
It’s simply not true. Folk tales were not forgotten, they were told and they were known.
Yeah, point. I screwed up. I’m sorry.
Fuck. This has not been the best of days.
To be honest I’m more upset by the book itself. It’s brilliant. The research part is probably unprecedented. But the amount of real world politics that crept in is extremely distracting. I’ve been wondering for a long time what sense can an average western fantasy reader make out of Yaichka chapter, and I’m at loss.
It is indeed brilliant. And I’m sure Cat wanted to write a wonderful book about Russia, especially given her comments about Yellow Blue Tibia. But writing about another country’s recent politics is hard. Despite the best of intentions, we can all screw up.
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