Impatiently waiting for the third novel in Katherine Arden’s Bear and the Nightingale series? This is just the thing to tide you over until it’s published, but Catherynne M. Valente’s novel is no mere stopgap. Indeed, it’s more of an experience than a book, bulging at the seams of its 350 pages. Valente reworks Russian folklore into a dark, dense and compelling narrative which skips in and out of tragic reality. Unlike Arden’s books, it’s also firmly adult, encompassing war, death and desire, while its folklore is the unbowdlerised kind, drenched in sex and blood. The curtain rises at the dawn of the 20th century, in St Petersburg, as the old order collapses, the boundaries between worlds grow thin, and a young girl receives an unexpected suitor.
Marya Morevna has already seen her three sisters married off. At first she’s surprised to see her sisters’ husbands arrive in bird-form and transform on the doorstep into handsome young men; but, with time, she comes to accept this as the normal way of things. She expects the same to happen when her time comes. But destiny has other plans for Marya Morevna. When the Tsar is deposed, she learns to accept the other families who are billeted in her beautiful house. She tries to be a good patriot. But she can’t stop noticing strange things, like the way the house is gradually getting wider, or the little domovoi or house-goblins, or the unsettling old woman named Comrade Likho who moves in next door. And then, one day, a knock comes at the door and Marya finds herself faced with a handsome black-haired man who asks for her hand in marriage. His name is Koschei the Deathless, and she has drawn him here through her failure to be the right kind of girl, as her domovaya explains:
Don’t you know anything? Girls must be very, very careful to care only for ribbons and magazines and wedding rings. They must sweep their hearts clean of anything but kisses and theater and dancing. They must never read Pushkin; they must never say clever things; they must never have sly eyes or wear their hair loose and wander around barefoot, or they will draw his attention! … But it’s too late now, too late!
Like all good fairytale heroines, Marya has failed to be ordinary. And her reward is to be whisked away, across impossible distances and frozen wastes, towards her suitor’s country: a journey marked with sickness, healing and the first stages of an intensely erotic education (which is not, however, explicit). There is no space for equality or gentleness in this relationship: intimacy is to be taken by force; approval is to be gained through silence and submission; although the odd daring move might be greeted with interest. Yet this isn’t a fantastical Russian version of Fifty Shades; fear not. Marya’s new life in Koschei’s country of Buyan is full of other marvels: splendid expeditions to hunt firebirds; Life pulsing in all things, from fountains to the skin-walls of houses; and her three beloved companions, the leshy Zemlehyed, the vintovnik Naganya and the elegant magician Madame Lebedeva. Marya has finally found somewhere she can call home.
But Marya’s troubles have only just begun. Koschei shows no sign of actually marrying her, although she grows fiercer and more dashing, and their love more violent and more satisfying, every day. What must she do? And then she runs into a formidable enemy: Koschei’s sister, the witch Baba Yaga, who sets the would-be bride a few little challenges to prove her worth… While Marya grapples with her tasks, Koschei, Tsar of Life, continues his timeless war against his brother Viy, the Tsar of Death. As Western Europe goes up in flame and blood, Viy’s forces are swelling and the frontier creeps ever closer to idyllic Bayan. Meanwhile, in the world outside, all that Marya holds dear is crumbling away. Sometimes the odds are so very great that we can never hope to beat them. All we can hope to do is meet them bravely, on our own terms.
I simply cannot hope to summarise any more than that, and I’ve barely scratched the surface. This is the first book I’ve read by Valente and she combines a wry sense of humour with a style so sweeping, so detailed and so ambitious that it’s taken me more than three weeks to read this book – significant, given that I’d normally get through a novel of this length in a couple of days. Moreover, I think I’m going to need to read it again to actually have a hope of understanding it – perhaps after reading a concise history of Russia between 1900 and 1955. It’s a startling achievement. Sometimes I felt slightly unable to see the wood for the trees – like being at a fireworks show where you’re so distracted by that splendid chrysanthemum that you miss that display over there. And yet it’s so much better than I expected, although I didn’t really know what to expect. I suppose I imagined it’d be similar in spirit to Katherine Arden’s books, whereas in fact it feels bigger, grittier, darker and sexier. And more romantic, in some ways. Who doesn’t dream of being wooed with this kind of passion: ‘I do not tolerate a world emptied of you. I have tried … I have looked for your face in the patterns of the ice. In the dark, I have pored over the loss of you like pale gold.’
Epic in scope, but compact in size, I think this is the kind of book that’ll give up more each time you read it. It can’t be dismissed as ‘mere’ fantasy. It’s a compendium of dreams, an allegory of politics, a satire on the futility of war, and an exploration of how men and women love and hurt one another; and its prose is so glittering and thick that you could chew it like black bread. It’s a book to brood over on dark nights and one to discuss: something to tease out and argue over. Puzzling, but rather brilliant. Needless to say, I will now be looking out for anything else that Valente has written, as well as trying to find a good translation of the original folk stories about Koschei and Marya. And, of course, waiting for that knock on the door…
I can’t help rounding off with a passage that made me laugh out loud, as the vain Lebedeva contemplates the possibilities of fiction:
Someone ought to write a novel about me … I shouldn’t care if they lied to make it more interesting, as long as they were good lies, full of kisses and daring escapes and the occasional act of barbarism.
I’m with her on the second bit.