Wednesday 26 December 2012


Catheryne M. Valente, 2011
(December 2012)

This book in one word? Well… ardour.
Lovely timing on this one. Deathless is a reworking of the Russian folk tale of Koschei the Deathless, a tale of which I was unaware before starting this book. It’s perfect for this time of year: cold, wintry, and romantic with all the requisite dustings of myth and magic.

Valente can write as well. She has a lovely ear for cadence and the tempo of fairy stories; the progression and repetition inherent in building these grey on grey morality tales. Three suitors, three older sisters, and three tasks set by the wicked witch to win a marriage blessing. It’s also, à la Angela Carter, a reworking with the sexual aspects shoved front and centre (there’s even a forbidden dungeon in the basement) and, pace Pratchett and Gaiman, a narrative as much about the power of narrative as anything else.

Those are just my three most readily available comparisons. Which is kind of unfortunate for Valente, because for all that this is a wonderfully written and crafted yuletide read, those comparisons serve to throw this book’s biggest failing into very sharp relief -

She forgot to include the jokes.

I don’t even mean jokes, not really. The authorial tone is very assured and consistent, but it’s consistently, relentlessly firm. It never lightens its grip enough to let you breath, let alone smile or laugh. I loved reading this while I was doing so (because who doesn’t enjoy a bit of breath-play every now and then?), but whenever I put it down I was in no particular hurry to pick it up again (because if that’s all you enjoy then it’s a little freaky).

I’m not demanding a laugh riot. The Bloody Chamber wasn’t exactly side-splitting, but in a short story collection that’s not a problem. Romance and passion in small doses are wonderful things, but you need more variation to sustain an entire novel. What we get here are not romance and passion, but ROMANCE and PASSION. It is made continually clear that this fairytale is Very Serious Business.

At this point I’m probably meant to say something like ‘It’s all very Russian.’ But honestly, how the hell would I know? I’ve spoken to maybe a dozen Russians in my life and yes, most were pretty taciturn to begin with, but after a couple of minutes all revealed themselves to have functional (if not excessive) senses of humour.

None of that here. There’s no let up in the tone, which is all the more surprising given that thematically this book is all about contrasts: Life/Death, Husband/Wife, Tradition/Modernity, Nature/Industry. Even the magic munchkin sidekicks and familiars you would usually count on to provide comic relief are objects of lust and sexual power games. The only contrast you get in tone is Earnest/Portentous, which is hardly a yoking of opposites.

Romance is meant to be fun, y’know? I’m all for the occasional session with a dominatrix and the beechwood cane, but there’s a lot to be said for the feather duster every once in a while as well. It’s the difference between getting a massage from a physiotherapist and getting a massage from a new girlfriend; they both feel good but even though the second may lack the skill and ability of the first it’s still much, much more satisfying as an experience. Because it’s more fun, and part of that’s the unspoken promise of more interesting things to come.

Deathless doesn’t deliver on that promise. It makes no promises whatsoever. You have to earn your promises, and you’ve earned nothing. Deathless doesn’t flirt, it demands. It doesn’t tease, it flogs. It doesn’t tickle, it thrashes. And while I may well have been a very naughty boy and certainly do deserve my punishment, I’d still like some butter and honey on my bread or else it’s just too difficult to swallow the whole loaf.

Ardour is, of course, worth only one point fewer in Scrabble than arduous. These things matter when you’re Playing Games.


  1. Okay, I am going to get $#!+ on here, but isn't the humourlessness a woman thing? (Antisthenes looks for cover). Not that women can't have a sense of humour (my wife clearly had one to marry me) and not that women writers can't (Lionel Shriver's 'We have to talk about Kevin' is outrageously, if brutally, sardonic), but it isn't part of the socialization to rely on it as a default, as it is for men. This is much of why I like few women authors, and have fewer women friends. The women friends and authors I like, have a sense of humour, or should I say, they express their sense of humour.

    It's a playground thing: you learn to joke your way out of the conflicts you can. Face-saving, as there is always someone bigger, or a situation where honour needs saving but it's not efficient to be recovering from a beating every day, or going to jail as a teen/adult. As a teacher I don't mind the way that boys work out their problems (this leaving aside bullying proper), but the way some girls can carry a grudge for school-years and longer... (reminds me of an ex or two).

    1. Oh hello. Want a hand with that can opener?

      Massive generalizations to follow...

      I'd definitely prefer the 'male' form of conflict resolution over the drawn out grudges 'women' seem to specialise in. For a lot of people, humour is a defence mechanism, as you rightly point out. And I'd tentatively agree that (for whatever reasons) it's more prevalent in men than women.

      It cuts both ways though. Witness the rise of 'banter' as basically a form of bullying that the victim can't object to without seeming humourless, and the way many men use jokes as a way to deflect otherwise uncomfortable and icky conversations about 'feelings' and stuff. Can't handle honestly addressing what you really need to? Make a joke and deflect attention! Everyone's a winner!