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Well what do you know the big-box bookstore (only bookstore) in this town actually got a book in a timely fashion. *blinks* I think that may be a bending of space and reality, there.

So this is lovely. I have read... *counts on fingers*... eight terrible novels involving Koschei the Deathless, and, prior to this, no good ones.

Traditionally, of course, Koschei the Deathless steals a young lady, and she has to free herself from him and defeat him by having her lover Ivan find the ridiculously complicated place in which he's put his heart. Egg inside a bird inside a cat inside a cow on an island at the end of the world sort of heart-hiding. And then Koschei dies, the young lovers go home, etc. Also there is often a firebird.

In this version Marya Morevna, who is not precisely stolen by Koschei the Deathless, comes from a city that was once called St. Petersburg and has been Petrograd and Leningrad and so many things that no one can keep track of the street names anymore, a city of ration cards and house committees and an omnipresent revolution. This tends to make a fairytale more complicated, because Marya Morevna makes her own choices.

The last time I saw this particular milieu, it was in Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, with which this book shares a sense of wonder. In that one, Margarita becomes a witch to save her writer lover from blacklisting, and that's a valid moral choice. In this book, in this Leningrad, the moral choices are even harder. The blending of Russian folklore here with Soviet bureaucracy is seamless: this is a book in which a dragon can sleep on a bed of bones that are actually death warrants, in which the domovoi also have a house committee and can inform on you, in which there is always a war and the information about it is never reliable.

And this is a book that both follows the structure of a fairytale perfectly and outgrows and complicates and sheds it as it moves on. This is a book in which happily ever after is not, and a wedding is a beginning, not an ending. I like its blend of pragmatism and lyrical imagery, black humor and pure darkness.

I think that I am more in love with Valente's previous novel, The Habitation of the Blessed, but that's because that one hits all my theological kinks and is about a time period and set of myths closer to my heart. Deathless is a very good book-- I am not one hundred percent totally absolutely convinced about the ending, but mostly-- and it fills a gap where I had not seen a good fantasy novel, and I am glad to have that gap filled.

Also, there is, often, a firebird.
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I read this on B.'s Kindle, as paper copies seem difficult to find, so I wound up reading part of it in the National Gallery of Art, next to that lovely and odd semi-triangular waterfall they have in the basement concourse between the wings. I think it was a good setting. It is a book that also contains much of the lovely and odd.

This is a reworking and rethinking of the legends of Prester John, that mythical Christian monarch who sent a letter to Constantinople in the late 1100s describing his vast empire somewhere near India and the monsters and wonders which inhabited it. Although the letter was demonstrated to be a forgery fairly early, parties of Christian explorers spent several centuries on and off looking for the land of Prester John, who after all combined the traits of a religion friendly to them and existing in the parts of the world where wonders could occur. I haven't seen as much of Prester John in fantasy as I might have expected-- his empire turns up in Umberto Eco's Baudolino, but that's about all I can think of. Valente's book takes the letter as its source text and is largely set in the empire, with its cyclops and gryphons, its Fountain of Youth, its anthropophagi and talking red and white lions.

Well, when I say largely set in the empire, I mean that on a meta level, because the frame story is that of a group of monks who are searching for the tomb of St. Thomas and the land of Prester John; they find a tree that sprouts books, and the tales we get of the empire are copied from the books they pick, fragmentary sometimes and disintegrating as the books rot like fruit. It's fairly obvious that the stories are true, but there is that small element of doubt, of textual play, which is quite characteristic of Valente if one looks at her previous work. As a result, there are multiple threads going on here which are not privileged over each other-- there's the story of how the man who would be called Prester John came into a land of marvels, and the story told by a blemmye (a person who has no head, but eyes for nipples and a navel for a mouth) who will become his wife, and the bedtime stories told by a nursemaid to royal children of the empire some thousands of years earlier, and, of course, the monks reading, with their wonder and doubt.

Prester John is not a very sympathetic character. He is Christ-ridden, unable to see out of the context of his god, to a degree that is frightening and tragic. But Hagia, the blemmye, is a joy to read, as are all the other denizens of her country, free and powerful, wise and interesting, loving and intelligent and deeply, deeply odd. And the threads tie together in the ways that they should, not always overtly, and the whole hangs together.

The one thing that did not ring true to me is that the party of reading monks are supposedly set in 1699. They simply don't come across as being that late. Their mindsets would have made more sense in men from two or three hundred years before that-- not from the post-Renaissance, from the dawning of the Enlightenment. But that is the only caveat I have.

I believe there are supposed to be more of these, though where they would go from the end of this one is not obvious. If so, I look forward, as this is some of the more unusual and colorful fantasy I've read in a while, and I enjoyed its portrait of a truly different realm of wonders.


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