(Juibilatory pre-script, appended 5.11: Valente’s celebrated The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making has finally been released in bookity form! We covet, and so should you – just check out the reviews if you don’t feel convinced by the title alone. [That might be ‘coveted,’ past tense, in Kakaner’s case – she’s probably getting her fix as I type this.])
A few weeks ago, I got to see Catherynne Valente read from her newest novel, Deathless, at Pandemonium Books (conveniently located about twenty steps from the Central Square T stop in Cambridge, MA). Deathless, a Stalinist-era retelling of the fairy tale of Marya Morevna and Koschei the Deathless, was released in late March to glowing reviews, and its first printing already seems to be well on its way to selling out. (I know this because Pandemonium actually couldn’t get copies in on time for the signing due to short supply at multiple warehouses. Bummer for the eager fans at the signing, but fantastic news for Valente.)
Valente read from a segment in which Marya encounters Baba Yaga – chauffered in a chicken-footed limousine – at a swanky club for devils. The prose was vintage Valente – vibrant, blackly witty, equal parts wonder and menace. Part of her motivation in writing Deathless, Valente emphasized, was a desire to bring greater awareness of both less-familiar folklore, and terrible events outside of the usual American perception of World War II. Her Marya emerges from the fairy-tale world into the Siege of Leningrad, a horrific three-year siege that consumed more than 1.5 million lives.
Deathless also includes, of course, generous doses of Communist satire. How do the inhabitants of the fairy-tale world react to Communism? one fan asked. “They love Communism. They’re devils! Communism is great.” (Baba Yaga also demands that Marya address her as “Chairman.”)
Amy Houser‘s lush comic teaser, “The House Committee,” features one such episode from the novel. (Houser, Valente mentioned, designs Barbies and My Little Ponies for a living, and was excited to work on something just a little bit darker.) Images below the cut —
For those of us less versed in Slavic wordplay and Communist history, Valente explained the pun behind “The House Committee.” Domovoi are helpful domestic spirits in Russian folklore – “Not like Dobby, but still – house elves.” Following the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks attempted to institute a Domovoi Komitet – a house, or tenants’ committee – in every apartment block, which inevitably led to numerous jokes and songs about “house-elf committees.” And so in Deathless, Marya Morevna encounters a genuine house-elf committee:
(Those who have read Valente’s Palimpsest might also remember the appearance of a grim play on “domovoi” in that book, in the form of militant anti-immigrant “street sweepers.”)
Valente also spoke about her mythological interests in writing Deathless. Koschei the Deathless, she explained, is (alongside Baba Yaga) The Villain of Russian folklore. A vast subset of extant folklore presents some variation on the following formula: Koschei the Deathless (or Immortal) is a girl-snatching sorcerer who hides his death in some elaborately inaccessible location; one of the girls he snatches escapes with the help of a hero named Ivan; girl and Ivan succeed in finding Koschei’s death and destroying him. Rinse and repeat in the next folktale, making Koschei a figure who exists TO die, and yet is Deathless in his persistence throughout the whole of folklore, an irony that Valente found fascinating.
What brought her to the Marya Morevna + Koschei folktale in particular? Marya’s tale sharply departs from the rest of the Koschei canon. In her story, Ivan is Ivan the Fool, and disobeys Marya’s Bluebeard-style injunction not to poke around in her basement, where he ends up finding Koschei the Deathless chained to the wall. “Wait, wait –” Valente interrupted her partner when he was reading her the story for the first time, “- she has Koschei the Deathless CHAINED IN HER BASEMENT?” After he attempted explanation, she interrupted again: “Don’t you find that REALLY. KINKY?”
And thus was born the initial concept for Deathless, as an explanation for why Marya Morevna came to have Koschei the Deathless (kinkily) chained in her basement.
More fun tidbits from the reading:
- One fan asked if Valente had had trouble getting Tor, as a major “mainstream” fantasy publisher, interested in her more unusual takes on mythology etc. Valente responded by observing that Tor is actually almost entirely composed of women below the age of 30, who as such are much more likely to be receptive to her work, and the writing of other (predominantly female) authors within the so-called “mythpunk” movement (a term that Valente actually coined very much tongue-in-cheek-ly). I still default to imagining most publishing, fantasy or not, as an old-boys’ club, so – The More You Know!
- Valente revealed that out of the bakers’ dozen (I may be exaggerating here, but only slightly) of books she’s releasing this year, one has been released under a male pseudonym and is Very, Very, Very Unexpected in content. Fans have been challenged to figure out what it is!
- A group of ten or so fans who stuck around after the reading that may or may not have included me, may or may not have gotten to go eat ice cream with Valente afterwards and talk about Twilight, Doctor Who, and feminism, but it would be very mean of me to brag. So I won’t say I did.
Catherynne M. Valente