Deathless by Catherine M. Valente

deathlessFrom the first chapter of Deathless, I was ordering, pleading with myself to slow down and not to read so fast. But I couldn’t help gobbling the story down in one lavish gulp. Valente has written book that is both beautifully written and exactly the kind of book I love to read.

Set against the backdrop of Russia in the twentieth century, the story follows Marya Morevna as she watches the world change from a narrow house in Leningrad. A young man who is neither young or a man knocks on her door; he is Koschei, the Tsar of Life and he is Marya’s fate.

Every part of this book was so clever and imaginative I felt like I was stopping to gawp at the pages every five minutes. Valente writes the kind of story where I can hunt for the hidden meaning buried inside each passage or let the true significance fly over my head and just admire how beautiful it is.

After that, Marya Morevna understood that she belonged to her secret and it belonged to her. They had struck a bloody bargain between them. Keep me and obey me, the secret said to her, for I am your husband and I can destroy you.

This is what magical stories should always be. Showing the real world for what it is. Where the mythological world reflects the real world, where house elves have embraced Stalinism and the Tsar of life is at war with the Tsar of death. Where everyone pretends not to know what happened yesterday and the dead still have to go to work the next morning. Where Baba Yaga rides her pestle and mortar and turns girls into soup. The rich world of Russian folklore has been weaved into the twentieth century so effortlessly it sent shivers through me even though these are not the stories I grew up with.

After reading this gorgeous book and glancing at Valente’s website, where I see she has written a number of fantasy books and won dozens of prestigious awards, I can’t believe it has taken me this long to read one of her works.  I recommend Deathless not only to fantasy fans but also to those who love history and writers with a mastery over storytelling and the English language.

 

 

The Wandering Unicorn by Manuel Mujica Láinez

thewanderingunicornEl Unicorno or The Wandering Unicorn is one of the most bizarre books I have ever read. It was written by the Argentinean author Manuel Mujica Láinez in 1964 and translated by Mary Sitton into English. The only copy I could get was a battered Berkley edition from 1984 so I don’t think it has recently been reprinted.

The story begins with the infamous medieval romance about Melusine the fairy, who marries Raimondin of Lusignan until their marriage disintegrates when he sees her half serpent body in the bath and she is compelled to go screaming around one of the many castles she has built. The tale then follows Melusine watching her family branching out across Medieval France and across to Palestine during the crusades.

I haven’t seen mythology this rich and archaic since I studied Arthurian literature at university. Fairies, unicorn horns, heraldic banners, knight’s templar, Jerusalem and angels living like monks in castle towers.

“From my retreat in the church tower I could see across to his cell and watch him pacing up and down, reading his devotions by the feeble light of a taper; but though we were neighbours, and the only non-human inhabitants of  Lusignan, we never exchanged a word.”

The main thread of this story is Melusine falling in love with her very distant descendant, Aoil, who has no personality to speak of. Melusine’s endless resentment and jealousy of other women bored me to tears and I found her stalking of a fifteen year old boy and lusting after him deeply disturbing especially when he was in the bath or sleeping. The only character I could have liked was Aoil’s half sister (who has some peculiar issues herself) but I strangely found her the only one I could feel empathy with

This is not a story to read in big sections; it takes concentration. Mainez goes off into tangents about the history of everything. The dry humour and lushness of imagination saved this from being tedious but authors like Susanne Clarke in Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell managed to do this with more success. The story definitely picks up halfway through and I didn’t have to force myself to read anymore especially when there is an utterly briliant twist I did not see coming.

Since this story follows the medieval tradition of the crusades there is a lot of Orientalism, Islamaphobia, anti-blackness and general western superiority. There are some people who would excuse this with being “a thing of its time” but it is never fun to read about. Nevertheless this is a very odd yet beautiful book and like Jorge Luis Borges said in his introduction: “a glowing dream of the past

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

20706317This is the kind of book you’ll stay up all night to read.

Harry August lies on his deathbed for the 11th time. A little girl calmly sits beside him and says “I nearly missed you Dr August. I need to send a message”

In the world North has created, a few people live their lives over and over again. They die and wake up as an infant back in the same exact time and place they were born. At the end of his eleventh life a little girl, who has also lived several lives, passes on an ominous message to Harry, a warning that has been passed down through generations of people like them.

I loved so many things about this book, the tightly woven plot, the ethics of messing with time and a deep and complicated friendship that transformed with each lifetime. And I loved the main character, Harry, who successfully carried the story with empathy and dry humour as he deals with living the same life over and over again:

Naturally my reaction to being born again precisely where I had begun – in the women’s restroom of Berwick-upon-Tweed station, on New Year’s Day 1919, with all the memories of my life that had gone before, induced its own rather clichéd madness in me.

Harry as a character grew on me with a slow burn until before I knew it, it was three in the morning and I was on tenterhooks for what he was going to do next. North expertly illustrates a man who is seemingly dispassionate about life and “linears” who live just once through it but we start to see that’s not quite true.  I already respected his cleverness, and North expertly illustrates how dynamic his mind is without outright telling us, but it was his reaction to the briefly mentioned character Rosemary Dawsett that was the turning point for me and made me Team Harry all the way. North writes scenes that are unsentimental and yet able to devastate you at the same time

 “Forgive me,” I wrote at the bottom. “I did not think I would break.”

Quantum Physics and Nuclear Power play significant parts in this novel and the last time I took any kind of science was at GCSE level. Despite this North writes in a way that made me feel I could understand it. She gave it context, made it exciting and this is an example of the great way fiction can bring an unfamiliar subject to life. I love fiction where I organically learn things while engaged in a great story and North delivers this with effortless skill.

This is an epic story of rivalry, of friendship, alternate timelines and the power of human discovery. It is definitely my favourite fiction book so far of 2016.