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Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente
She watched the husbands fall out of the tree and come for her sisters. Handsome birds that became humans as they hit the ground and came to the door to knock. She waited for a bird of her own, but as the years went by and no bird fell into a husband for her, Marya despaired of being bird-less forever. She sees the magic in the little things, the way her house, groaning and stretching to accommodate twelve families under the fiercely cooperative reign of Stalin, starts to grow under the careful hands of the house spirits. She sees the domoviye, attends one of their meetings, and learns that Papa Koschei is coming for her.
Koschei the Deathless, Tsar of Life, has chosen Marya to be his. He carries her off across the land in a car that runs with no driver, to a land where everything is living. Houses are made of skin that gathers gooseflesh in chill breezes and the fountains bubble up living blood instead of water. She enters a world of Life that is constantly at war with Death and changes ever so slowly and subtly from the bookish, odd girl who had watched birds fall to be husbands to a fierce woman who hunts firebirds for sport and keeps company with rifle imps and woodland spirits. And yet, Koschei does not marry her. Marya wants for nothing, her life is filled with every imaginable opulent pleasure, but that one thing. And that one thing is impossible without the permission of Koschei’s sister.
Baba Yaga, Koschei’s sister, gives Marya three impossible tasks. Should Marya complete them, Baba Yaga will give her blessing on the marriage. With the help of her closest companions, Marya struggles through the tasks, learning more about herself and her desired husband, and eventually gaining Koschei’s marriage vows.
But the Tsar of Death wriggles into their world and everything changes. There is a war going on, and the war is going badly.
Deathless tells two stories, one about revolutionary, communist Russia. The other the mystical world of the Tsar of Life and his endless war against the Tsar of Death. Both conflicts weave in and out of each other, coming to a collective crisis point that will leave a reader breathless in a mix of horror and anticipation. There were points where the reader is hard-pressed to decide which is the nightmare and which reality.
It is a brutal, bloody, and passionate book, filled with the oldest and best pieces of romance in all their stark beauty. Here is devotion that goes beyond death. Here is death that is inexorable and greedy and frighteningly patient.
Deathless is a beautiful book. It is historical, mythological, and one of the most wonderful romances I have ever read. Highly recommended.