Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente
Published by Tor Books - ISBN13: 9780765326300
In a city by the sea which was once called St. Petersburg, then Petrograd, then Leningrad, then, much later, St. Petersburg again, there stood a long, thin house on a long, thin street. By a long, thin window, a child in a pale blue dress and pale green slippers waited for a bird to marry her.
Growing up in post-revolutionary Russia is not easy, even harder if you are Marya Morevna, a cunning but romantically minded young woman with the fortune and drive to run off with Koschei, the Tsar of Life. Of course, love (if that is what this feverishly codependent relationship is) never runs smoothly, especially when you new husband is in a state of perpetual war with his brother, the Tsar of Death.
Based on colorful Russian folktales and bleak 20th century Russian history, Deathless is a lyrical and often beautiful twisting of fantasy and historical events. Different chapters are written in different styles, with some being fairly conventional narratives while others hew more closely to fairytales with their triple repetitions and dream logic.
The best part of the story is the running gag that the Russian revolution has effected change in the fairy folk as well, with house goblins spouting revolutionary slogans while trying to be true to their nature. But although Deathless is humorous in places the overarching direction is towards darkness and dispair. The revolution does nothing for the harsh Russian winters, Marya's relationship with Koschei is complicated and mutually-destructive, and the Tsar of Death commands an army that grows by one each time one of the living is killed. The drums of war and death sound louder in both worlds.
The best fairytales have a strong core of grimness, but Deathless amps it up to 11 in an impressive display of Russian darkness. But there are some flashes of color, even at the ending - what exactly occurs is up for debate depending on the readers optimism.
I only sort-of liked Deathless. Parts of it were excellent, the weaving of fantasy and history is well done and there are lots of little touches that made me smile. It is much better written than most attempts at this type of thing, with some quite lovely prose. But I found myself overwhelmed by the dourness of the story and annoyed by the bad choices of nearly all the characters. By the end I felt fatigued and was glad when I reached the last page.
Recommended if you like this sort of thing.