Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Deathless by Catherynne Valente

Magic in books often comes in a certain flavour. It has wonder, and awe, and power. It is sometimes threatening, it is sometimes homey, it is sometimes awe-inspiring. I'm not sure I've ever run into magic quite like this before, though.

This is magic that blends with real life, so that when a man in uniform comes with no warning to take you away from your life forever, it might be the secret police, or it might be Koschei the Deathless. The person informing on you within your own house might be the people you share the house with, or it might be the domovoi in their own House Committee. The magic of life might be bloody and cruel and harsh, but the magic of death is worse.

Life isn't just pretty, affirming life is not easy. It's hard and it hurts and causes pain and suffering and regret. It's worth fighting for, but it isn't harmony and living side by side with nature.

Marya Morevna watches as birds fall out of the trees three times and turn into suitors for her sisters' hands. She waits to see if anyone will ever show up for her. While she waits, the Russian state moves more families into her house. Food becomes scarcer. She works in a factory. Her belief in magic causes her to be shunned at school.

And then Koschei shows up for her, the Tsar of Life, and takes her for his bride. And inside the stories of Russian folklore, Marya Morevna has to undergo Baba Yaga's tests to prove her worthiness as his bride, and then help him fight the war against the Tsar of Death, in a Russia in which the bodies are piling up so quickly that their enemy's ranks swell, moment by moment.

And in the end, the story she is living in takes its natural course, although not quite its natural course.

I am coming to realize how much I love books where characters are strung on a web of inevitability, pushed to decisions because there is no other choice. I love the exquisite pain and tension of such moments, rejoice when the characters find a way out of predestination, but enjoy it just as much when inevitability leads to moments that I could not have predicted but are, themselves, implicit in every moment that has come before.

I loved this book, loved the mingling of Russian stories with Russian history, the feeling of horror as the twentieth century takes hold, and the moments where it is clear that, although talking about what Marya experienced was against the party line, and therefore liable to be punished, life persists. It isn't pretty. But it persists.

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