The Dense Nothingness of Death

by dhaaruni

I’ve been in the process of reading “Deathless” for almost a month now and today I just speed read the remaining 200 pages I had left during my break because it wasn’t going to get any better no matter how long I left it and I really wanted to get this review done because it’s been dwelling in my mind for almost as long. I’ve read bits and pieces of Catheryne M. Valente’s work, namely her poetry, and I like her style, probably in large part because it’s more than a little reminiscent of my own, extraordinarily dense and giving off a semblance of deep emotion but with spurts of lightness interspersed to prevent readers from abandoning it. That being said, I don’t think I’ve felt as disturbed by a novel until I read Deathless and granted, it was more from the response to it than the novel itself. I’ve reached a point in my existence as a media consumer where I’ve started to take the response to a work as two part: first, as influenced by the consumer’s own prejudices and second, as what the creator herself is accountable for, because you reach a point where the portrayals of characters are filled with so much ingrained bias that it has to be criticized on an objective as well as a thematic level.

To quickly summarize the novel, it’s the retelling of the Russian fairytale of Marya Morevna Ivan Tsarevitch, and Koschei the Deathless, a demon of sorts who specializes in the kidnapping of young women. Unlike the original, Valente’s retelling casts Marya as the main character instead of Ivan, makes Marya’s sisters participate in the plot, and details the original relationship between Marya and Koschei and her subsequent defeat of him which the original narrative exclude. Valente’s account of it is like I previously stated, beautiful, intricate, and dense, full of historical references to the real Russian Revolution and the fallout from it as well as fairy tales and the tropes that accompany them. Most prominently, “Deathless” features the Rule of Three, three of Marya’s sisters that marry birds who turn into men, three tasks Marya must complete for Baba Yaga to marry Koschei, three chyerti friends who help Marya with her tasks and so on. Moreover, the featuring of Baba Yaga is notable in that she represents the archetype of the witch, a long-standing fixture in fairy tales the world round, and who’s the only person who comprehends the depth of the story they’re all in.

But. Deathless left a sour taste in my mouth, like I was eating one of those beautiful French hors d’oeuvres which taste like something gone rotten but are presented as elite so anyone who dislikes it is automatically seen as in the wrong. To put it bluntly, I thought Marya was a stagnant glorified bad teen fiction heroine who’s immersed in this madcap struggle for survival and yet, has time for a love triangle. I don’t really care about Ivan because he’s not important in this retelling of the story, and even in the original, he’s the archetype for a hero more than an individualized construction of one. But as for Koschei and Marya, my opinion is a combination of disgust and abject horror at the number of people that romanticize it.

Let’s get this straight: it’s not okay to romanticize the relationship between a 15-16 year old girl who has zero agency even if she manages to achieve it later and manipulates and defeats her captor. It’s not romantic and dark, it’s abusive, and honestly, it’s an entry in the long line of narratives in which teenage girls are clothed in pretentions of adulthood so that their adult male abusers are seen in better lights. I find complicated and toxic romantic relationships fascinating on a literary level, but the key element is that the relationship is of equals; one party is not abjectly more powerful than the other, and this definitely includes the relationship between adults and children. Koschei may appear young, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s ageless, has numerous ex-wives (all named Yelena because that’s not remotely disturbing at all) and oh yeah, is the personification of Death which isn’t a positive trait in a potential romantic partner in case you thought otherwise.

Perhaps Valente is attempting to meta-textually comment on these issues but I’m disinclined to believe that just based on the lucidity of the language used in describing it.

“Oh, I will be cruel to you, Marya Morevna. It will stop your breath, how cruel I can be. But you understand, don’t you? You are clever enough. I am a demanding creature. I am selfish and cruel and extremely unreasonable. But I am your servant. When you starve I will feed you; when you are sick I will tend you. I crawl at your feet; for before your love, your kisses, I am debased. For you alone I will be weak.”

I’ve having a hard time articulating my discomfort with this dynamic but in short, it just screams of the manipulation and systematic emotional disfiguration of a young girl and I’m not a proponent of that at all. A man who’s cruel doesn’t have his cruelty invalidated by momentary spurts of kindness, the logic of a man who’s selfish and debased who tells his partner he’s on his knees for her is inherently flawed because his power is based on his dominion over her. Not to mention, that sort of language doesn’t imply true humility or respect, it reeks of emotional abuse with an underlying ambiguous threat of violence if she doesn’t meet his “demands.” And the fact Marya eventually defeats him doesn’t invalidate his initial actions and the fact that Koschei is seen by the narrative and by readers as a Byronic Hero or an anti-villain far more than the depraved rapist he is is disturbing. I know that “love is like having your throat cut” but there’s a profound difference between love cutting your throat and your lover cutting your throat, and with regards to Koschei, I’m inclined to believe in the latter.

I think that my major distaste for the book also has to do with the responses to it that I’ve read, because there’s this very strong argument for it being a majorly feminist work and “empowering” to women. Personally, no matter how pretty the language was, there remained this underlying element of oversimplification to me; something always felt unreal and not in a good way. To put it bluntly, I don’t agree with all the metas which claim Marya Morevna as some form of “strong” female character because to me she’s not even a character, she’s an archetype and the unfortunate part is that Valente doesn’t seem to develop her beyond the external visage of her even if on some level, I think that was her intent.

“Koschei, Koschei,” she whispered. “What would I have been if I had never seen the birds? I am no one; I am nothing. I am a blank paper on which you and your magic wrote a girl. Just the kind of girl you wanted, all hungry and hurt and needing. A machine for loving you. Nothing in me was not made by you.”

I wish that lack of characterization in Marya was acknowledged more when discussing the novel because that’s how I felt about her to be quite honest. She was just this creature made for the male gaze, to be the warrior queen who had all this power but was still unbearably appealing to men even Death himself was susceptible to her charms, and personally that really bothers me in a character because it’s another construction of femininity that really doesn’t strike me as remotely feminist.

Here’s the thing about writing a “feminist” work: you have to write characters that have a valid existence beyond the text, whether they’re virgin lady knights or evil queens who use their bodies to fulfill their ambitions. There’s no such thing as succeeding and failing as a woman even if there is definitely such a thing as being a good or bad person. The thing about Valente’s writing (and George R.R. Martin’s and so many other writers of sci-fi/fantasy/any other genre besides romance which is female driven to an excessive level) is that it prizes not being conventionally feminine to an excessive level, or rather being capable in traditionally masculine mediums but still being beautiful and worthy of the male gaze, and in my opinion, that’s just wrong. And yes, I’m talking about Tamora Pierce with Alanna who was still attractive enough to be in a love triangle with both George the funny thief and Jon the crown prince, and George R.R. Martin with Lyanna Stark who’s the greatest because she was wildly beautiful and had Rhaegar Targaryen and Robert Baratheon going for her hand in marriage even if she was more interested in sword fighting and dressing up like a boy and Arya who looks like Lyanna and is always right even as a 9 year old. A woman doesn’t have to be worthy of male affection to be valid, and no matter what people may say about how the term Mary Sue is gendered (which it is to a degree), I’m not a proponent of the concept of the “ideal woman” who’s worthy of male affection and any other woman who isn’t just by virtue of not being her.

Also, I read this article that states that Deathless is feminist because it shuts down the concept of weaponized femininity, which is supposedly racist and classist etc. Okay short story: that analysis of weaponized femininity is more or less bullshit for a few reasons. I’m not claiming that designating femininity to be represented by thin white women is fair because it’s not, but at the same time, there needs to be the acknowledgement that the United States isn’t the baseline by which we make judgments on the nature of feminism because there are billions of women outside of it. The fact is, the hetero-patriarchal white supremacy hegemony is still prevalent outside the United States but people of color are not the “other” in the same manner as the United States. The same topical divisions of women, mothers, maidens, princesses, whores etc. exist in places like India, China or Africa where there aren’t a high percentage of white people, and if you’re going to spew statements like “women of color are always seen as monsters,” expect to be called out because that’s extremely U.S. centric and reeks of internalized racism. How do I know this? I was raised in India and abroad and I’m not saying it’s perfect, but there wasn’t as much pressure to be white; I didn’t see myself as anybody but myself until high school, I wasn’t Indian, I was just me. And I never saw myself as automatically ugly or monstrous for not being white, and now you’re telling me that I am? Well then.

But returning to my point at hand, I don’t think claiming “Deathless” rejects weaponized femininity is remotely valid because as I said, a great deal of Marya’s power comes from the faxt she’s appealing to both Koschei and Ivan as a romantic and sexual conquest. And to be honest, anti-femininity, which is hugely prevalent in radical feminism, is also misogynistic. Attractiveness as a woman is a double edged sword; if a woman isn’t attractive, then she hasn’t lived up to her task as a woman, to be sexually appealing to men, and if she is attractive to men, she’s responsible for living up to that privilege and being open to be picked and prodded and ogled and if she wants to be in control of her own image and sexuality, that’s a sin to be punished with cat calling and shaming and whatever other punishments we thrust upon women. And Valente herself has this passage:

“The old order, it is good for the old. A farmer wants his son to be afraid of beautiful women, so that he will not leave home too soon, so he tells a story about how one drowned his brother’s cousin’s friend in a lake, not because he was a pig who deserved to be drowned, but because beautiful women are bad, and also witches. And it doesn’t matter that she didn’t ask to be beautiful, or to be born in a lake, or to live forever, or to not know how men breathe until they stop doing it.”

It’s almost as if beauty is a sin even if it’s not in our hands and the way to overcome is to reject our femininity, but the text doesn’t fully support that either except to state that being feminine won’t save you but nobody ever said it did; it’s just that being conventionally feminine is just as valid a manner of self expression as is wielding swords and liking football.

But that’s my take on Deathless (over 2000 words of it wow) and I hope you enjoyed it or at least, gained a new perspective on the novel. Again, the novel is beautifully worded and hugely evocative of a rich period in Russian History but personally speaking, my issues with it far outweighed my appreciation for those aspects of the novel, and I leave my readers to form their own opinions.