Review: Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente (Leningrad Diptych #1)

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I have always been a sucker for folklore-inspired books – such as Uprooted, such as The Bear and the NightingaleThe ScarThe Ill-Made MuteIn the Forests of Serre…and now Deathless.

No one is now what they were before the war. There’s no way getting any of it back.

But while the other books play the elements relatively straight, only expanding them at need, this is a dark, brutal deconstruction; like, yet unlike the other retellings. The worldbuilding is excellent. Instead of the middle ages it is set roughly during the both World Wars, so it’s hardly a surprise. Half historical fiction, half mythology, there are rifle imps and communist house spirits, soldier factories, battles from history that are really fought between Life and Death, and a protagonist that embraces the darkness rather than fighting it. The characters are not particularily deep, but I felt like they don’t really have to be in retellings, if the atmosphere and the language and the symbolism are strong enough to carry it.

And here they were. The writing is easily the best aspect. It relies heavily on repetition and parallelism in the vein of oral tradition, it’s rich and poetic and fits perfectly. I highlighted so many quotes.

You will always fall in love, and it will always be like having your throat cut, just that fast. You will always run away with her. You will always lose her. You will always be a fool. You will always be dead, in a city of ice, snow falling into your ear. You have already done all of this and will do it again.

I’ve seen some saying the plot is nonsensical and meandering. I admit I only looked up a brief synopsis of the original tale, but I still think it’s anything but. It takes liberties of course, but it follows the pattern of the story regardless – the characters themselves tell you what will happen, that this is just a permutation of the same old, but you’re still curious to see if it really will and to what extent. The inclusion of real historical events is interesting (even if I, again, can’t say much about accuracy) and that one chapter did make me want to read more about the siege of Leningrad, horrible as it is. The last 20% are surrealist and bizarre and batshit crazy in the same way dreams are, and while I’m not sure I like the ending, it could hardly end in sunshine and rainbows. War rarely does.

Why the four stars then?

The fatal flaw was that I could not buy Marya and Koschei’s relationship as love, not really. The twistedness was to be expected given everything else, but it was too close to abuse for my comfort, especially at the start, and never really questioned or presented as anything other than a (dark, twisted, but still) romance. It could have been handled better. In some chapters I could pretend it’s not there, that it’s Marya’s story, but even when it was not at the forefront, it was still integral – it isn’t called Deathless for nothing. The other aspects were strong enough to grit my teeth and get through it to get to the good parts (good prose alone is a redeeming quality for me), but I can completely understand that it could ruin the story completely for someone else.

Enjoyment: 4/5
Execution: 4/5

Recommended to: grimdark fans, those who like folktale retellings and good prose
Not recommended to: those who can’t stand abuse presented as romance

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