Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente
Courtship rituals are fascinating to watch but, for us humans, emotionally draining to be involved in. All around us we see song birds. These fly about in the most flashily feathered costumes, showing off their vocal abilities to weave stories about their lives, charming the girls out of the trees and into the nests. But lurking out of sight are the predator birds. In daylight hours, they soar high into the sky, ready to fall on their prey before they have a chance to flee. But it’s the night hunters who are the most deadly. They are the silent killers who fly on muffled wings when all the most vulnerable are blinded by the night. Their breaks and claws will tear a body limb from limb. Whom do they choose for their mates and how do they treat them?
In many ways, Deathless is a slight throwback to a time when female authors embraced more radical feminism and wrapped their campaigns for equal rights in fairy tales. One of the most impressive was Angela Carter whose political leanings informed her passion for puncturing the superiority of men through the use of allegory and magic realism. One of her consistent devices was the use of a city or landscape to define an aspect of the male personality. For example, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman captures the notion that men lie about and hide their pasts. She describes the desire of a city to reinvent itself by pulling down the slums and red light areas. This redevelopment is intended lift it up from its more emotionally primitive past to become a new centre of culture and refinement.
So it’s rather interesting to see a modern author, Catherynne M. Valente, explicitly taking on the feminist role. For better or worse, modern man has been subverting the more radical voices that were encouraging the majority of women to seek practical equality. What was a major social movement thirty years ago, pushing quite aggressively to give women better protection, has been declared a success. With new laws in place, and both governmental and non-governmental organisations tasked with promoting change, the narrative implies the main battles have been won. In our postmodernist world, we are looking for new paper tigers or sacred cows to slay. Yet anyone with unprejudiced eyes through which to see our culture will understand that patriarchy survives. Convincing the modern generation of women that there’s no need for further change is a crude device for removing the impetus for any change in the reality of male domination. Although we all see some progress since the Victorian times when women were not allowed to own their own property, this counts for little when contemporary women have so little access to real power.
In Deathless, Marya Morevna sits in the window of her house and watches birds become men who take her three sisters away in marriage. One night, when she is not watching, an owl turns into Koschei the Deathless and demands she come with him. He treats her as a thing to be fed as and when he chooses, wherever he happens to be. He is, of course, solicitous. If she falls ill, he produces a cure, albeit one that’s painful. But, most importantly, the price she must pay for this relationship is to surrender her voice. He will interpret every instance of silence to understand what she needs. All her needs will then be satisfied as he thinks best. In a way, this arrangement will be successful when the couple are removed from society. They can live in a bubble and, without the ability to make comparisons, the woman can be persuaded this is a normal relationship. The “danger” comes when the woman can meet others.
Of course, when men rule all the roosts the couple visit, the women will all tell the same story of imprisonment by hopefully benign jailor husbands. It’s the consistency that perfects the patriarchy because no woman expects anything better. Indeed, the myth can then be sold that A only punishes B because A loves B, wishing only to correct A and show her the proper way to behave. A only punishes when he will forgive out of love. But let’s keep this real. If marriage is a war and only one party can survive, then it all comes down to the question of control when entering the marriage. Whoever has the power will eat the other up no matter what happens in the world outside. For those women who are subservient and faithless, the only expectation is a life of drudgery and death.
The allegory in this tale draws on stereotypes of failing communism in post-revolutionary Russia. Life is surrounded by corruption and incompetence. Cronyism rules and the interests of the people are subordinated to the needs of the oligarchy. The reality is that no modern state can survive economically without food to put in the bellies of the comrades, and oil to fuel the factories and war machines. Without a balance in the cycle of life and death bringing more people into the world to drive it forward, there can be nothing to share. If too many die, the houses will be empty, the fields left waiting for seeds. So the post-revolutionary state must officially forget the past and look only to the bright new future where everything will be better. There can be no dissent, no criticism when things go wrong. Indeed, nothing ever goes wrong when an official plan is set in motion.
And what does that leave for us? If I’m married, there’s always the risk an Ivan will appear to seduce my wife away. If children are born. . . Ah, here comes the truth. When we are born, our feet are set on the path to death. Indeed, in many cases, children are the path to our deaths. But, perhaps, if the woman’s love is strong enough, she can knock down the defences of her man and then rescue him from defeat at her hands. This may seem paradoxical but, in a world where women must fight to survive, saving their men from themselves is the least they can do. Except, over time, this is a forlorn hope. Everyone dies, sooner or later. That is the nature of death. Even someone apparently deathless cannot hold off the end forever. So when death finally comes to the world and all save one are taken, can she be the redeemer? If the bond between the woman and her man was strong enough, can she call him back from death?
For the most part, the writing is of a high standard and, in its own right, worth reading. But there are several serious problems with the book. First, it’s all rather dispassionate. Although the opening is a fascinating retelling of some traditional Russian folk stories, it soon gets bogged down in the feminist message and the characters become talking heads rather than people we can identify with. Indeed, as the book develops and the fairy story falls away in favour of more about the Russian state in the 1930s and the subsequent siege of Leningrad by the German army, it all becomes rather dour. Unlike Angela Carter who was able to hide her didacticism in the subtext, Catherynne M. Valente abandons the use of myth for the telling of her parable, and allows it to become more realistic. This switch of tone represents a strong element of dissonance between the two parts of the novel, undermining the very qualities that initially made Deathless so attractive. It’s a great shame as, yet again, the quality of writing has not been put in service to a well-developed plot.
For a review of another novel by Catherynne M. Valente, see The Habitation of the Blessed.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
For the record, Deathless is a finalist for the Mythopoeic Awards – 2012 and was shortlisted for the 2012 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel.