Category Archives: Russian folklore

Rabid Reads: "Deathless" by Catherynne M. Valente

by Catherynne M. Valente
Tor Books (2011)
352 pages
ISBN 9780765326300
Available via: Amazon / Book Depository
Last year I had the chance to read Ekaterina Sedia’s The Secret History of Moscow, which I found to be a very satisfying traipse through Russian folklore. So I thought I good second visit would be through Catherynne Valente’s Deathless.
The novel is a re-imagining of the fairytale about Koschei the Deathless, the Tsar of Life; and Marya Morevna, a peasant girl whisked away by Koschei to become his bride. It’s set against a backdrop of the early twentieth century in Russia, as the Communist oppression is juxtaposed against the fantastical landscape of Marya’s new kingdom with the Tsar of Life. A goulash of whimsical and fearsome characters adorn this book, as the story of Marya’s very unfairytale romance to Koschei is played out in a fairytale setting.
Valente’s storytelling offers up a very melodic style as the characters are introduced and the plot unfolds. The language used and the rhythmic way it is laid out in key spots give the sense you’re being read a bedtime story of the most hauntingly tragic kind.
For someone unfamiliar with the Koschei fairytale, I really felt like a foreigner reading this book. I suspect a cursory glance at the source material would have offered me an even more rewarding experience, but at least the story, taken at face value, is enjoyable enough despite being ignorant to the winks and nods along the way. And between Deathless and The Secret History of Moscow, I get the feeling there is a wellspring of Russian folklore I’m missing out on.
I’ve had the good fortune to read some of Valente’s short fiction over the last year or so, and I was quite looking forward to a chance to read one of her novels. Now that I have, I am pretty sure I will be actively seeking out her work in the future whenever the chance arises. If you’re a fan of authors with a deft hand at the fantastic, hers is a name to look for.


Filed under book review, Catherynne M. Valente, Deathless, fantasy, Rabid Reads, Russian folklore

Rabid Reads: "The Secret History of Moscow" by Ekaterina Sedia

The Secret History of Moscow
by Ekaterina Sedia
Prime Books (2007)
310 pages
ISBN 978-1-60701-229-0

After hearing a heap of praise for her novel The Alchemy of Stone, as well as an anthology she edited, Running with the Pack, I decided I should keep an eye out for Sedia’s name on the spines of books. So when I had the opportunity to snag a copy of the new paperback release of The Secret History of Moscow, I did.

One of the front cover blurbs is by Neil Gaiman, in which he compares this book to his own fantasy tale, Neverwhere. As a fan of Gaiman’s work, and having read Secret History now, I can say that the story is certainly worthy of being put in the same league as Gaiman’s novels.

Galina, a modest 90s era Russian who makes a modest living as a translator, witnesses her little sister Masha turn into a white jackdaw moments after Masha gives birth to her daughter in their apartment’s bathroom. Thinking your sister has turned into a bird is crazy, but Galina’s been thought of as crazy before–and she’s in no hurry for her judgmental mother or anyone at the institution where she once resided to think of her as crazy anymore.

But the strange birds flying over Moscow are more than she can ignore, and when she learns that she’s not the only one who can see them, she seeks out a way to find her sister and bring her back home. Helping her on her quest are two men: Fyodor, a street artist long compelled to paint the birds and enamored by a gypsy woman he met before she disappeared; and Yakov, a by-the-numbers police officer who has trouble buying into any notion of people turning into birds or alternative worlds existing beyond reflective surfaces.

In a strange sense, the story kind of reminded me of a grown-up version of The Wizard of Oz. Only as Galina and her small troupe entered the underworld populated by deities and mythical creatures from Russian folklore, the scenes almost seemed to become grayer than the drab experience left behind in Moscow.

There were moments when I really just had to take supporting characters at face value. Being unfamiliar with Russian folklore and history, I felt there was a subtext I was missing out on most of the time. Sedia’s prose is charitable enough to offer brief explanations about the more prominent figures they encounter, and a couple of them–like Timur-Bey and Koschey the Deathless–really stand out despite not taking up a lot of proverbial screen time.

At first the trek Galina and company takes feels very linear and almost perfunctory–go here and talk to so-and-so, repeat as need–but it becomes clear that they’re doing more than just randomly talking to mythical beasts and asking for directions to the nearest checkpoint. There’s a fair bit going on, and a burgeoning love story between Fyodor and the gypsy girl, Oksana, is a bit of a scene-stealer–as are the small army of rats she has befriended.

It’s a rich little adventure, and for a fantasy novel I find it refreshing that it is a stand-alone tale with a very satisfying end. That’s a rare and welcome occurrence in my opinion. I’m definitely looking forward to reading more of Sedia’s work down the road.



Filed under book review, Ekaterina Sedia, fantasy, Rabid Reads, Russian folklore, Secret History of Moscow

Wish List Wednesday #62: Ekaterina Sedia’s "The Secret History of Moscow"

Wish List Wednesday is a weekly meme I started in July ’09, in which I put the spotlight on a book that is on my wish list–whether new release, blast from the past, or hidden gem.

I already have an Ekaterina Sedia novel sitting on my wish list (WLW #27: The Alchemy of Stone), but when I had the chance to do a little bargain hunting on Book Depository I found another novel that sounded just as promising. The paperback release of this title should be hitting shelves right about now, and should hopefully be arriving in the mail very soon.

The Secret History of Moscow brings some classic Russian folklore into a contemporary Russian setting, circa 1990. Now, the setting is different enough from my usual reading fare, but that’s not the only reason I wanted to read this book. It’s a fantasy novel that uses creatures from Russian folklore, creatures now living in obscurity and exile around Moscow, as a way to explore Russia’s tumultuous rise and fall of Communism among other things.

I have read nothing but complimentary reviews for Sedia’s work since first reading about her a year ago, so I have a feeling that I’ll enjoy this novel once I get a chance to read it.

Are you familiar with her and her novels? If so, are you another person with rave reviews for her?


Filed under Ekaterina Sedia, fantasy novels, Russian folklore, Russian setting, The Secret History of Moscow, Wish List Wednesday