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Literature / Deathless

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War is not for winning. It is for surviving.
"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."

Deathless is a 2011 historical fantasy novel by American speculative fiction author Catherynne M. Valente. The novel retells the Russian folk tale of The Death of Koschei the Deathless, set against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution and the rise of the Communist Party.

Young Marya Morevna, daughter of twelve mothers, watches as three birds turn into men and come to wed her sisters, and wonders when one will come for her. As she grows from girlhood to womanhood in St. Petersburg, her eldest sister marries in Tsarist Russia, while the other marriages describe the passage of years into the revolution. But Marya is claimed by someone greater: Koschei the Deathless, Tsar of Life, a menacing figure locked in eternal battle with death. Marya must learn to navigate the treacherous borders between life and death as war comes for her, for life, and for all of Russia.

Deathless provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Achilles' Heel: As in the original Russian myths, Koschei is invulnerable because he has hidden his death deep inside an egg. His death eventually is reborn in the form of a girl, and Koschei dies.
  • Aloof Dark-Haired Girl: By around the middle point Marya is definitely this; she has grown into The Stoic during her time in Buyan. Her long, black hair is frequently emphasized.
  • Action Girl: Marya as she is an officer in Koschei's army. Later grows into a Lady of War when she becomes tsaritsa. This is keeping in line with the original tale, in which Marya Morevna is a warrior-princess.
  • All Just a Dream: Marya's time in Yaichka. She wanted both Koschei and Ivan and this was the only way she could really have the traits of both men in one person.
  • Anti-Villain: Koschei the Deathless, a well-known villain of Russian fairy tales, is instead portrayed more sympathetically.
  • Baba Yaga: Has a featured role as the intimidating older sister of Koschei and the one who sets the test for whoever would be his bride (read: Marya). Her proper title is given as the Tsaritsa of Night. She hints at a very gruesome past, but isn't all bad.
  • Badass Boast: "I am Marya Morevna, daughter of twelve mothers, and I will not be denied."
    • Madame Lebedeva gets one about the art of makeup:
    "Do you think I am a fool, Masha? All this time, and you speak to me as though I were a flighty pinprick of a girl. I am a magician! Did you never think, even once, that I loved lipstick and rouge for more than their color alone? I am a student of their lore, and it is arcane and hermetic beyond the dreams of alchemists. Did you never wonder why I gave you so many pots, so many creams, so much perfume?" Lebedeva’s eyes shone. "Masha, listen to me. Cosmetics are an extension of the will. Why do you think all men paint themselves when they go to fight? When I paint my eyes to match my soup, it is not because I have nothing better to do than worry over trifles. It says, I belong here, and you will not deny me. When I streak my lips red as foxgloves, I say, Come here, male. I am your mate, and you will not deny me. When I pinch my cheeks and dust them with mother-of-pearl, I say, Death, keep of , I am your enemy, and you will not deny me. I say these things, and the world listens, Masha. Because my magic is as strong as an arm. I am never denied."
  • Big Fancy House: Marya's family home, at least initially. Because it's so big it's made into a dwelling for twelve families under the communist regime, hence Marya's twelve mothers.
    • Marya's eldest sister Olga lives in a massive, magical country estate after her bird-marriage.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Everyone is dead in the end, but death is no worse than life, and there are hints that a reconciliation between Marya and Koschei is in the works, as at the very end of the book Marya is trying to return to Koschei, on what will probably be more equal terms this time.
  • Blue-and-Orange Morality: The struggle between Koschei and Viy and the values of the citizens of their kingdoms are incomprehensible to humans, just as human values are incomprehensible to them.
  • Body Horror: Viy, the Tsar of Death, has unnaturally long eyelids. Like, floor-length eyelids.
  • Break the Cutie: Marya is slowly broken over a period of years, beginning in her childhood when she witnesses birds transform into men who marry her sisters and take them away. No one believes her, forcing her to keep this a secret. By the time Koschei comes for her, between the magic she has witnessed and the way her home life and Russia degrade over those years, she is already in trouble. Things only get worse for her when she marries Koschei.
  • Brother–Sister Incest: Koschei and Baba Yaga were apparently an item once upon a time. Yaga claims that when you're immortal it doesn't count as a bad thing.
    • Heavily implied between Koschei and Alkonost in a rare case of brother-brother incest.
  • Broken Bird: Marya, by the time Ivan enters her life. She has forgotten a good deal of her human emotion.
  • Byronic Hero: Koschei again, as he is more dark and troubled than outright evil.
  • Crazy Jealous Guy: Koschei, although he blends intense jealousy with a philosophical detachment.
  • Dark Is Not Evil: Viy is the Tsar of Death, but Death is no worse than Life.
  • Dead Person Conversation: Having these is entirely possible, as the country of death is slowly encroaching on Buyan, but is inadvisable. Ghosts, even if not malicious, can still hurt the living just by being what they are. Marya has such conversations with Svetlana and Lebedeva anyway.
  • Deader than Dead: What happens to the troops of Viy, the Tsar of Death, when they are slain in battle. They leave behind bodies, but what happens to their spirits, no one knows.
  • Defecting for Love: Marya abandons Koschei and his war when she falls in love with Ivan. All the Yelenas and Vasilisas did the same.
  • Despair Event Horizon: The Siege of Leningrad.
  • Devoted to You: This is Koschei's curse. He is hopelessly in love with Marya, though he can't express it in a way she appreciates.
  • Did They or Didn't They?: Alkonost says that Koschei fertilised the egg that he, Alkonost, laid, heavily implying that they had sex. However, given that it's couched in such mystical, poetic language and the two people in question are immortal mythical spirits, it's possible that nothing we'd recognise as sex actually happened.
  • Doom Magnet: Madame Likho. When she befriends Marya Morevna's mother, the other woman gets clumsy, breaks her foot, sickens, worsens... it turns out Madame Likho is the embodiment of bad luck, and she doesn't apologize for it, either.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Maybe. The happiness of the ending is debatable, though the characters fought very hard for it. Literally.
  • Forever War: Between Life and Death. The war is going badly, but then, the war is always going badly.
  • Four Is Death: Marya is the fourth daughter in her family, and the daughter who ends up marrying Koschei and bringing about his death.
  • Funny Foreigner: This is the view the people of Buyan have of Marya and her ignorance of their ways.
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: Koschei and Viy are constantly opposed to each other. Neither is good, but neither is evil, either.
  • Impossible Task: In proper fairy tale style, Baba Yaga makes three demands of Marya Morevna before Marya may wed Koschei. Marya's friend Naganya reminds Marya that Baba Yaga expects Marya to cheat. Marya must bring the flower called raskovnik, and white gold (cotton) and black (oil), and then ride Baba Yaga's enchanted mortar to the northern border of Buyan and back.
  • Kill It with Ice: How the Siege of Leningrad is described. Justified because the winter is personified as "General Winter," a mighty warrior who has won many of Russia's wars for her, but unfortunately his blindness means he kills as many of his own soldiers as he does the enemy. (see the "Real Life" section of that page).
  • Loners Are Freaks: Marya, from the very beginning. She realizes she is something of a freak when she reveals her beliefs about marrying birds to her classmates, and she remains fairly isolated when she becomes queen in Buyan because she is human.
  • Love Martyr: I think allowing oneself to be tied up in one's wife's basement while she has a life with her lover in the house above and uses you for sex and submission for years on end counts as pretty damned martyred, wouldn't you agree, Koschei?
  • Mundane Made Awesome: Marya thinks that Madame Lebedeva's obsession with lipsticks, face powders and night creams is frivolous and foolish. She doesn't realise that Lebedeva is a powerful magician, and uses her makeup as an extension of her will and a method of casting spells.
  • Mythopoeia: Madame Likho's history of the Great War is not a war Marya recognizes: it is about the beginning of time, and the primordial Tsars and Tsaritsas who rule such elements as water, salt, birds, the length of an hour, the night, and of course, life and death.
  • One-Steve Limit: Played straight with Marya, as there is only one Marya Morevna, but averted with all the Yelenas. Baba Yaga says Koschei has a weakness for Yelenas. And Vasilisas.
  • Rule of Three: In keeping with the book's fairy tale roots, this pops up frequently. The three birds that court Marya's three sisters, the three tasks she has to perform for Baba Yaga and the three friends who help her with them, the three gifts Marya's sisters give her, etcetera.
  • Scenery Gorn: Played with. Everything in the Country of Life is alive. Everything. The buildings are made out of skin, the fountains spurt blood instead of water, hair grows from rooftops... When Marya brings Ivan to Buyan, he is rightly horrified. However, to the residents of Buyan, this is homey and proper.
  • Shout-Out: Marya and her sisters have the same/similar names as Tsar Nicholas II's daughters: Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia. The only difference is Marya is the youngest of her own family and Anastasia is instead Anna.
  • Shown Their Work: Valente shows extensive knowledge of this period of Russian history and of Russian folklore. Her husband and his Russian family exposed her to the culture, stories, and history, and helped with issues of language.
  • Tall, Dark, and Handsome: Much is made of Koschei's beautiful appearance.
  • Threshold Guardians: Baba Yaga acts as this for Marya Morevna, subjecting her to a few tasks before Marya weds into the family.
  • Truth in Television: Much of the depiction of the Siege of Leningrad, up to and including cannibalism.
  • Utopia: Yaichka is a fairly straightforward example; it's an idealized Russia where nobody goes hungry and all the factions during the Revolution reside in relative harmony. Justified as Alkonost deliberately constructed it that way.
  • Vain Sorceress: Madame Lebedeva plays with this trope, being both vain and a sorceress. As she clearly explains, however, her preening is not mere vanity, it is an exercise of her will, and therefore an act of magic.
  • War Is Hell: War permeates the novel, and it is never depicted as being in anyway righteous or glorious. Ultimately, everyone suffers for it. The characters even lampshade this by talking about how the war is going badly, but then, the war is always going badly.
  • Wham Line: "No, child. Those are the keys to your own house, and they bleed because in that house Ivan is dying, and he is alone."
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Ivan is horrified by the sort of life Marya leads in Buyan, and he says so.