46. Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente

Published in 2011 by Tor Books.

There are various iterations of his accursed name, but in Slavic folklore, Koschei the Deathless augurs ill, particularly for the beautiful, chaste maidens he lures into his lap. As the ancient stories have it, Marya Morevna is his opposite: a steel-tempered warrior woman who brings the immortal, undying Tsar to heel, with chains and with stratagems. Russian children cut their teeth on these parables, and in their imaginations, such figures are hewn from the stardust of reality, fashioned in the space where our inherited stories possess, in their childhood telling, the greatest strength.

Valente has claimed the tales of Koschei and Marya to enact the fable-ornate, revisionist tableaux of Deathless. Young Marya, her head filled with any number of strange, otherworldly things, lives in a house on Gorokhovaya Street, St. Petersburg, where she peers from her window out onto the street below. A husband, who begins his visitation to her as a bird, waits in her future. His arrival will confirm that she’s meant to step over the veil that shrouds the Other World from easy sight. It is a realm in which she, so unlike her sisters three, belongs. She cannot predict that her husband will be Koschei himself, cloaked in the raiment of a young man’s beauty. Though Marya has not bargained for Koschei’s hungry entreaty — that she follow him into the wide maw of uncertainty, far away from her home — she goes, making the bargain for ill, or good.

Deathless spans the Russian Soviet Union history of the 1920s through to the 1940s. The reader sees St. Petersburg become Petrograd, morphing into the Leningrad that endures the unspeakable grief, and human cost, claimed by the over two-year long Blockade. Marya is present, her consciousness superimposed over the multiply-tiered storylines of this Russia, and another: the undying lands of Buyan, Koschei’s kingdom where everything lives, even walls of responsive skin and fountains ceaselessly spurting arcs of blood. In this realm, the one to which Marya has been stolen away by her immortal lord, the human maiden blossoms into a hard-won womanhood, thrice-tested by the wicked tasks that Baba Yaga, Koschei’s demon sister, the Tsaritsa of Night, commands.

Those unfamiliar with Valente’s writing style will fall headfirst into the thicket of her prose, as adorned and intricate as ever it’s appeared — though perhaps considerably less breathless, less prone to swoops and sky-curlicues than it appears in the dizzyingly lush Palimpsest. The order of the narrative, through the intoxication of the language used to tell it, is stamped with the austerity of Soviet Russia. It’s a bureaucratic severity that seeps even into Koschei’s domain, as Baba Yaga herself reminds Marya, there’s always been a war, in and out of one girl’s reckoning with the war that shapes her, personally and politically.

Though it cleverly considers the landscapes surrounding an origin story (and the ways in which such terrain might be respectfully, usefully subverted), Deathless runs on fable. The structures of fairytale, principally the (re)occurrence of triumvirates, knit one Russia to the other, knit Marya’s one warrioress life with her domestic decisions in another realm. There is a necessary repetition to this that’s worth the occasional strain it puts, on the rate at which the braided stories canter along to their final destination.

Books like these are bold by default, because of the territory they excavate in order to achieve their own world: they cannot escape claims of cultural appropriation, nor should they. Deathless is a pulchritudinous, seductive fable that supplants emotional hierarchies of how Koschei, Marya, Baba Yaga and the Slavic folkloric contingent are perceived. It’s not written by someone to whom this folklore is native, and this will always be problematic for some of the indigenous recipients of the work, and the ways in which they come to bear on it.

I can’t claim to have my own compass points on cultural appropriation finitely fixed. It’s a dangerous thicket in which emotional and spiritual navigations can shift on the reassignation of a scrap of sacred ground. If you are of Russian lineage, if your ancestors lived, or else died, in Communist Leningrad, you may thrill to Valente’s fictive perceptions, or you may despise them. This, I think, remains your right.

Corsair Books, 2012 edition.
Corsair Books, 2012 edition.

Perhaps this makes my own task easier, less fraught with personal demarcations of inheritance, and resultant ownership. In every regard, Deathless is fiercely beautiful. It is assiduously researched, devotedly formatted, with attention lavished upon the stories, rituals and conquests of old.

What I love best — and there is no dearth of it throughout the worlds Valente helms in this moribund mythology — is the constant countermanding of what’s deemed “normal”. Weird love howls for triumphs, too, and in this territory, the surreal is as credible and palatable as the bread & buttered obvious. If you’re a feral adherent to that which is fanged, dark and plasma-patinated, then you’ll adore what passes between Koschei and Marya. Witness the scene in which he declares her unquestionably his, in the lull of a bitter quarrel, conducted in his smoky-pillared Chernosvyat:

“I will tell you why. Because you are a demon, like me. And you do not care very much if other girls have suffered, because you want only what you want. You will kill dogs, and hound old women in the forest, and betray any soul if it means having what you desire, and that makes you wicked, and that makes you a sinner, and that makes you my wife.”

If you’re wondering whether Marya and Koschei have lived out this scene through countless lives, don’t wonder: Valente makes it plain, using Baba Yaga, the novel’s most rollickingly well-managed auxiliary character, as mouthpiece. Auntie Yaga, not-uncruelly, tells Marya in plain terms:

“That’s how you get deathless, volchitsa. Walk the same tale over and over, until you wear a groove in the world, until even if you vanished, the tale would keep turning, keep playing, like a phonograph, and you’d have to get up again, even with a bullet through your eye, to play your part and say your lines.”

Death’s immutability is the novel’s garnet-studded spine, and the writer bestows gnawing, hungry pleasures for the reader who invests herself in unfurling its viscerally satisfying (albeit repetitive) revelations. If you come to the table famished, Deathless will ply you with loaves and wine, asking that you remember this story when you’re through, when you go fur-collared into glacial streets, to kiss your own Death on its grinning, strong mouth.

For a taste-test of Valente’s style: consider her short story “How to Become a Mars Overlord”, one of my Story Sunday posts. One of the principal characters in Valente’s Palimpsest is the answer to a Bookish Question I asked myself: When last did you catch an incontrovertible glance of yourself in fiction, and did you like the way you looked?

Yourself in Books, Day Two.

Day Two: When last did you catch an incontrovertible glance of yourself in fiction, and did you like the way you looked?

I read Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente in the last month of last year. Whenever I thought of reviewing it for Novel Niche, I felt that it wasn’t time. I felt, specifically, that there would be no way I could speak critically of a novel that had made me feel so much in love: in love with words and storytelling; in love with sexually-shared cityscapes, and in love with one of the four main characters of the story: November Aguilar, the beekeeper with a face that shows the places she has been in stark, difficult detail.

There is a way that the habits that seem most shameful or embarrassing in ourselves suddenly reveal themselves as pure, clear tenets, when written by others, or when enacted in plays we love, books we hoard. Early into our meeting with November, we learn that she loves to make lists. Listmaking seems like a paltry thing, or worse, a paranoiac one, but not the way that Valente describes it as part of November’s province.

“The keeping of lists was for November an exercise kin to the repeating of a rosary. She considered it neither obsessive nor compulsive, but a ritual, an essential ordering of the world into tall, thin jars containing perfect nouns. Enough nouns connected one to the other create a verb, and verbs had created everything, had skittered across the face of the void like pebbles across a frozen pond.”

A consummate chronicler, and a woman fiercely dedicated to preserving her private sanctuary of these lists, November makes me think instantly of the person I am and hope, in essence, always to be: that is, weird, quite frankly. Weird and by that banner of strangeness, immediately identifiable to those who were weird as I, fellow carnies, bearded ladies and sideshow freaks.

I think Palimpsest is a remarkable, ambitious work. I believe it’s written in a specific way that makes you swear allegiance to one of its main characters — it’s because we’re drawn to archetype. We can’t help it. We discerning readers know that people are more than the sum of their parts, both in fiction and on the streets, but we still love these decisions, don’t we? Which of the nine muses would we be? (Calliope.) Where would we most want the Sorting Hat to plop us? (Slytherin.) Under whose Westerosi house sigils would we bear our standards with the most pride? (The surly golden kraken of the Greyjoy sigil.) Maybe we love these distinctions as much as we do because there are precious few of them in 2012, and those most prominent are the dubious emblems of which football team we hope hoists that huge metal trophy.

I won’t say which archetype November best represents — only that for me, she is at once a mirror and a portrait, and an unforgettable woman in literature. She understands sadness, and the importance of archiving, and sacrifice. She is eerily close to the way I’d want to be held up for scrutiny in someone’s work of art. The novel is peppered with her lists, which are haunting, palatable, earnest fragments, such as this brief tabulation following an assignation with a lover called Xiaohui (the very woman whose parting gift is an inscription that November can never erase):

“Things that are left in the morning: memory, thought, snow. Light. Work. Disease. Dreams.”

How difficult it is to write a post like this — it says so much about the way you want to be seen; the way you see yourself; the things you conceal and reveal in cycles and in increments. I might look back on this post in five years, or ten, and think, “I was addicted to the notion of suffering well, and beautifully, for the sake of creating something larger than myself that had its point of origination in me.” For now, though, I love November. She feels like so many places I have been, and have yet to visit. She is beloved by those who are both compassionate and cruel. There are marks on her body that can never be erased.

Maybe it is something she learns that reminds me of what I want to imprint on the way I live and conduct my living: an archivist can be thrown out of her cavern of solitude, too — what’s more, she can flourish; she can rule there as well as anywhere else.

This post is part of a series.
Day One: Which fiction to film adaptation broke your heart into several messy, inconsolable pieces?

Story Sundays: “How to Become a Mars Overlord” by Catherynne M. Valente

Catherynne M. Valente

“We have all wanted Mars, in our time. She is familiar, she is strange. She is redolent of tales and spices and stones we have never known. She is demure, and gives nothing freely, but from our hearths we have watched her glitter, all of our lives. Of course we want her. Mars is the girl next door. Her desirability is encoded in your cells. It is archetypal. We absolve you in advance.”

Catherynne M. Valente’s fictive worlds have been much on my mind for most of December. My first reading of her novel, Palimpsest, is one I’ve drawn lingeringly across weeks, when a part of me would have liked to devour it in one feverish night, but I resisted, because I was more interested in savouring each embellishment and prose filigree as though imbibing from a wineskin. Valente handles language with an adroit reverence that is both gratifying and illuminatory. She furnishes each page with landscapes that linger, with streets and signposts you swore existed only in your most chimeric of dreams. I became curious—would this mistressing of the written word translate just as resoundingly in her short fiction pieces? So I investigated, and “How to Become a Mars Overlord” landed in my lap, or, rather, I alighted upon its curious, ensorcelling geography.

The piece is, in its entirety, a proclamation, a seminar given at an unnamed (and, one supposes, intergalactic) advisory forum for a group of attendants interested in, to quote the introductory greeting, “the potential growth opportunities inherent in whole-planet domination”. This narration fills the story’s frame, told as it is in a metallically cheerful, almost-avuncular first person plural. One gets the feeling that this collective of Martian-conquest entrepreneurs has one’s best interests at heart, a sentiment that surely runs counter to the self-aggrandizement that fuels the core of each overlord’s personal interests. Still, despite the seemingly-simple, two-tiered approach to planetary despotism offered by the board, no records are permitted at the congregation, the uncertain significance of which seems to be understood implicitly by everyone present. The things revealed in this “how to” primer run deeper, possibly, than even the stealthiest trade secrets, but more for the revelations they hold about oneself rather than that elusive, lustworthy red orb.

Any writer with a basic command of her language could tell you, tongue-in-cheek, that the interstellar highway to Mars is equally informed by the journey as by the destination, and betrays just as much about the sanguine conquistadora’s aspiration-flooded heart, as the crimson-floored terrain of the planet itself. Catherynne M. Valente is an exceptional writer, and the transmission of this truth is jewel-studded, dripping with rich, effulgent lyricism. Not an adjective of adornment feels out of place, which is a rousing success when one considers how description-heavy is the writing, how much it shies away from a staid, thrifty commerce in storytelling. Despite this gilt-edged application in style, at no point is wandering through her fictive depictions of the history of Martian ambition cloying. This is a reading experience that is immersive in the best way; it tugs you down the labyrinth without the suggestion of a migraine, afterwards, when you’re trying to retrace your steps. Valente crafts copious, lush paragraphs of character exposition (more on those characters soon), and flanks them with precise declarative sentences, such as “Mastery of Mars is not without its little lessons”, and another in particular, which I won’t quote because it’s at the gleaming core of what makes this story so spectacular for me.

In a short fiction work spanning no more than a few thousand words, the author populates her chronicle with a legion of unforgettable characters, more than many full-length novels can boast. It will be impossible for you not to pick your favourite, as I have mine. Valente describes the unique, incandescent trials of those who have triumphed in the dominion of their own specific red planets: the titan of civil engineering industry and first All-Emperor of Mars, Felix Ho; the winged Muror poetess of celestial unrhyming, Oorm Nineteen Point Aught-One; the volatile,  impetuous and unsuccessful monarch, Harlow Y. She lovingly catalogues the exploits and endeavours of those who have reached for that distinctive brass ring that is Mars, and furnishes no less attention to detail on those who, crestfallen, have failed, dooming themselves to admire the planetary object of their affections from distant, less fiercely-burning surfaces.

As you come to the end of this parable that reads, simultaneously, as assiduously drafted science fiction and lyrical high fantasy, you might be most moved by the notion of discovery that ignites each paragraph of the piece. You’ll learn that Catherynne M. Valente has unveiled more than you thought apparent about space exploration and self-actualization—of how both to strive for Mars, and to strive to own it without losing ownership of yourself—and, if, like me, you’re new to her work, you will wonder where she’s been your entire series of lifetimes until now.

You can read (and listen!) to “How to Become a Mars Overlord” by Catherynne M. Valente here. (Lightspeed Magazine)

This Sunday, Ellen, the creator of the Story Sundays feature, proprietress of Fat Books and Thin Women, shares her thoughts on Touré’s “A Hot Time at the Church of Kentucky Fried Souls and the Spectacular Final Sunday Sermon of the Right Revren Daddy Love”, here.

Story Sundays was created by Fat Books and Thin Women as a way to share appreciation for this undervalued fiction form. All stories discussed are available to read free, online. Here’s Fat Books and Thin Women’s Story Sunday archive, and here’s mine. Want to start up Story Sundays on your blog? Yay! Email story.sundaysATgmail.com for details.