32. DEATHLESS, BY CATHERYNNE M. VALENTE (Book 1 of Deathless)
This one was recommended to me by one of my friends after I told her I liked fairytale retellings. This is, very obviously, a Russian story, so I was very surprised at how well I knew it. Not all of the stories told in here, many of the creatures were new to me (especially the ones having to do with cold and snow), some of the details and most of the names were different, but I did grow up knowing the bulk of the tale. I never imagined it was Russian, though; that's what comes out of growing up in a country where the "official" culture is actually a mishmash of several others.
I'm not familiar, however, with how this story is told in Russia. The only experience I have with it is how it's treated in Brazil; and it's through that experience that I have filtered it while I read this book. (One big difference I can already point out, for instance, is that the characters in here are usually nameless and their identities are unimportant. The names Baba Yaga and Koschei mean nothing. As far as I know, they're not recurring characters in stories, although they might well be; what matters in here is the actual story, so neither the villains nor the heroes are usually identified.) Because of that, I obviously cannot judge this book comparing it to the original story.
Synopsis: The retelling of the story (in Brazil we don't have a particular name for it) about a monster that kidnaps a beautiful young girl and forces her to marry; the hero seduces her, convinces her to trick the monster into revealing the location of his death, and then kills the monster and saves her. With a few twists: it's staged in St. Petersburg, during the Soviet Revolution and Second World War, and focuses on the beautiful young girl instead of the hero.
Overall enjoyment: I loved it. The ending was a little bit of a disappointment, but not enough to sour the whole thing.
Plot: It was very well engendered and fascinating. She links many different myths into the main thread, and then wraps it all in the historical context beautifully.
Characters: Surprisingly well developed. In this kind of story, the characters are usually symbols or just frames where the children can project their own personalities; retellings normally suffer a lot to overcome that. She manages to make the characters retain their symbolic status and still have personalities of their own.
World/setting: Wonderfully reminiscent of fairytales, where it's implied that you could find magic in this world if you only look hard enough, and it's perfectly possible to travel to a magical kingdom and back. It's very impressive how she manages to couple that with the Soviet Revolution and day-to-day living.
Writing style: It is also in fairytale style, and beautifully poetic. A pleasure to read.
Representation: Different sexual and romantical orientations are commonplace.
Political correctness: This is a bit complicated. Like I mentioned before, the secondary characters in this type of story are actually meant as symbols, and she retained this characteristic in this book. Classically, marriage is regarded as a symbol for growing up and acquiring independence (that is why the consorts, the princess that is rescued in boys' stories and the prince who does the rescuing in girls' stories are usually so bland and inexpressive). I believe both of Marya's relationships, to Koschei and to Ivan, are not supposed to be seen as romantic ideals, but rather as symbolizing phases of her life or parts of her own personality (or anything else, really; the whole point of fairytales is that they mean different things for each person). If taken literally, both of those relationships are actually very unhealthy, and I'm frankly very worried about how many people call this book a romance story.
Finally, there is the small problem that Catherynne M. Valente is not really Russian. I'm not sure about it, and, once again, I'm not Russian, so it's really not my complaint to make, but this book could be viewed as cultural appropriation. Then again, maybe she was respectful enough towards the culture.
Up next: The Storyteller, by Jodi Picoult