Vampires have stolen the spotlight from their Slavic folklore comrades far too long. Two new novels—Catherynne M. Valente's Deathless and Dubravka Ugersic's Baba Yaga Laid An Egg—ought to remedy that. Wildly divergent in their approaches to their fairy-tale source material, they've each forged something great.
When we meet Marya Morvena in Valente's Deathless, she's a bone-weary comrade advising a young deserter to run rather than face execution. The novel immediately flashes back to her childhood, and she's waiting by the window in her parents' home. She watches one bird after another fall backwards off a branch, turn into a man, and ask for her one of her three sisters' hands. St. Petersberg becomes Petrograd, and then Leningrad; her home is subdivided and made communal; the revolution sweeps away the old world; and Marya continues to wait for her own feathered suitor. But when he finally comes, it's Koshei the Deathless, the dark, cruel Tsar of Life. And so she leaves for the world of folklore.
But here's the thing about Marya: She's no good-natured Goose Girl, no sweet-faced Cinderella. If you're familiar with Deathless's source material (for the spoiler hungry, check out Andrew Lang's version from the Red Fairy Book), you'll know that she's a force to be reckoned with. It makes her an interesting choice, given the type of heroines that star in the most often-reworked fairy tales. Valente has taken an enigmatic outline of a character and fleshed her out into a young woman unapologetically ambivalent about her place both the real and fairy worlds. We're not dealing with someone who virtuously desires nothing and therefore wins all—which makes her all the more fun to read.
If there's one word that describes Deathless, it's lush. Valente has created a unique, memorable faerieland in Koschei's seat of Buyan. It's quite literally the kingdom of life, and there's no such thing as a inanimate object. Blood flows through the palace fountain, rather than water. The walls get goosebumps in the wind. The effect simultaneously lovely and deeply, deeply creepy, and Deathless is full of such touches. It's fitting, as Valente has portrayed Koschei as not evil, so much as alien and amoral. He's inhuman, in the most literal sense of the word, and the effect is as spine-tingling as the finest Irish stories about Cú Chulainn or the Tuatha de Danaan.
Even better, Valente has neither stranded her story in some preindustrial long-ago-and-far-away nor dumped it into a contemporary American city. She's relocated the mythic to Soviet Russia, so the horrific Siege of Leningrad is a major plot point and there are Stalinist house elves helping more families fit into smaller houses. Baba Yaga's famous chicken-legged hut even makes an appearance, re-imagined as an automobile.
Unfortunately, the novel struggles at the end. By the time we circle back around to the events of the prologue and reach the actual ending, the novel has run out of steam. Handled just a little differently, it would have packed a more powerful punch. Deathless is vivid and sweeping and delightful, but it suffers from Return-of-the-King syndrome. Several almost endings jostle for thematic space, and they crowd each other out.
Deathless draws on the same body of Slavic stories as 2010's Tiptree Award, Baba Yaga Laid An Egg, an unrelenting look at how the world treats older women playing off Russian folklore's malign granny. The fairy tale approach to the topic is especially compelling, considering contemporary assumptions about fairy tales and their youthful protagonists. (Insert your own grievance with Walt Disney here.) If old women appear, they function as either a help or a hindrance, never the star.
Author Dubravka Ugresic has turned that on its head. Her novel, Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, has three sections: First, a woman copes with her mother's slide into Alzheimer's; second, a triumvirate of elderly women goes to a Eastern European spa; and last, a primer on Baba Yaga lore from a mousy PhD. At the beginning, the style is fairly realistic, but with fantastical elements that gradually escalate. The opening is a straightforward account of coping with illness and grief, but then we get a passage like this:
And when all my strength, the strength of my every nerve, was spent in sobs, I would spit out a tiny breathing body, five or six inches across, no larger than the smallest toy doll, with a shapely skull planted on the spinal column, a slight forward stoop, eyelids lowered as if half asleep and, hovering on her lips, the hint of a smile.
Not exactly Tolkien, but strange and affecting. In part two, Ugresic subtly shifts into a more folkloric register. Friends Pupa, Kukla, and Beba arrive at a Wellness Center. Chunks of story end with traditional beats, like so: "And what about us? While life stories are muddled and extended, the tale slips along in its rush to be ended." We meet a young man laboring under a kind of enchantment who needs help winning the hand of a freckled young woman. All the while, we see the heroines, the Baba Yagas, fully realized characters in a world that doesn't want to recognize it.
I don't want to make the book sound like an over-earnest slog. It's also slyly, wickedly funny. The title is good illustration. Eggs appear again and again, with all sorts of symbolic meanings, but it's also just a good, old-fashioned term for a terrible performance. The overly modest Beba rattles off Pushkin, then insists she doesn't know either Russian or poetry. She calls herself a child of the sexual revolution, and the repressed Kukla retorts, "Just as well the revolution didn't catch you as a child. These old ladies are a surprisingly salty bunch.
But it's the ending where Ugresic really knocks it out of the park. Baba Yaga Laid An Egg concludes with a rhetorical blow to the solar plexus in the grand tradition of The Communist Manifesto. The rabble-rousing is fitting, given the subject matter. Even in the first section, the narrator's mother isn't just fighting against death and memory loss. She's fighting to remain visible. It's a domestic kind of aggression — painting over a cabinet from her daughter, scrubbing down her entire apartment after visits — but it's still a small act of Baba-Yaga channeling. The narrator of the third section, the lovelorn academic Aba, is another overlooked woman destined for Baba Yaga-hood. She begins with a dry treatise on the character's place in Russian folklore, then seems to run out of patience and closes the show with nothing short of fireworks.
These two novels are vastly different in their approach to the source material. Deathless is an imaginative, beautifully written fantasy. Valente has taken a fairy tale and a body of characters — Koshei, Marya, Baba Yaga — and brought them vividly to life. Baba Yaga Laid an Egg is a slightly different undertaking. Ugresic is more ambivalent about fairy tales, with her first section's narrator going so far as to proclaim: "It there was something I could not abide, it was folklore and the people who studied folklore. Folklorists were inane, they were academic infants." But despite the divergent approaches, both novels are weird and excellent and a great illustration of how writers can use fairy tale motifs to build something interesting and contemporary and emotionally resonant.
Top illustration of Baba Yaga by Sean Twiddy