by Catherynne M. Valente
“If the world is divided into seeing and not seeing,” Marya thought, “I shall always choose to see.”
Mmm, this book! – this is proper storytelling. Valente tangles and then unwinds the threads of Russian folklore and actual history, eventually cutting a vibrant, painfully beautiful tale about love and death and marriage off of her loom.
Marya Morevna sits in a second floor window that overlooks a street that used to be known as Gorokhovaya (just as Petrograd was once called St. Petersburg) and watches a rook, and then a plover, and then a shrike fall out of a tree and turn into handsome young men. These young men marry her three older sisters, and Marya is left with a complex secret, having ‘seen the world naked, caught out‘. As she waits for her own bird to fall out of a tree and come to claim her, Marya reads Pushkin, meets the Stalinist house elves that live behind the stove, and brushes her long dark hair with a silver comb.
When her bird finally comes, Marya is caught off guard, but is immensely relieved to be ‘finally inside the magic instead of looking at it through a window.’ Comrade Koschei is handsome and he wants her, and he takes her away in a long black car, far away to his own country where he rules as the Tsar of Life – or Koschei the Deathless.
Here Valente really snarls things. Marya begins a long dance with Koschei – who is a villain of Russian folklore – as each tries to determine ‘who will rule?‘ Meanwhile there are strange and wonderful leshiyi to befriend, firebirds to shoot, quests to go on at the command of Baba Yaga, and an endless war with the Tsar of Death. And inevitably, there is Ivan – a thoroughly human man whose destiny it is to take Marya back to Leningrad (as it is now called), where she is faced with another war and the undoing of many things – both magical and real.
This is not a particularly pleasant book, but it is a pleasure to read. It’s dark twists and turns are lit by excellent writing – probably the best I’ve encountered so far this year. While it spins heavily into fairy tale styling at times, and follows recognizable forms (many things happen in threes), Valente’s prose is lovely, and also like banging your funny bone – sharp and surprising and kind of deliciously painful. The characters are deftly embroidered but not perfect, and Marya is especially complex. I disliked her and yet loved her. The entire thing is almost like a fever dream – it left me dizzy and restless, and I was relieved when it was over. But I LIKE that about a book – I want stories that I need to kick off like a blanket on a hot night, and yet draw up to my chin a few hours later. This was such a one, for which I am grateful.