Scary figures from Russian folk tales cruising around in Soviet-era Russia, wreaking political and magical havoc? Only Catherynne M. Valente could write that story, and she has - in her new novel Deathless. Read an excerpt!
Here's what publisher Tor says about it:
Deathless is the highly-anticipated new standalone novel by award-winning speculative fiction author Catherynne M. Valente, due out from Tor Books on March 29, 2011. Deathless re-envisions the story of Russian folk figures Koschei the Deathless and Marya Morevna: a collision of magical history and actual history, of revolution and mythology, of love and death, which will bring Russian myth to life in a stunning new incarnation.
I've been excited about this book since Valente first told me about it, while sipping absinthe at World Fantasy Con in Montreal (yes that really happened). Now you can read a chunk of the book to whet your appetite - we've got the prologue here, and then you can jump over to Tor.com to read the rest.
Here's the book's prologue:
Prologue: Don't Look Behind You
Woodsmoke hung heavy and golden on the shorn wheat, the earth bristling like an old, bald woman. The apple trees had long ago been stripped for kindling; the cherry roots long since dug up and boiled into meal. The sky sagged cold and wan, coughing spatters of phlegmatic sunlight onto the grey and empty farms. The birds had gone, arrows flung forth in invisible skirmishes, always south, always away. Yet three skinny, molting creatures clapped a withered pear branch in their claws, peering down with eyes like rosary beads: a gold-speckled plover, a sharp-billed shrike, and a bony, black-faced rook clutched the greenbark trunk. A wind picked up; it smelled of clover growing through the roof, rust, and old, dry marrow.
The boy stood sniffling, snot and tears dripping down his chin.
He tried to knuckle it away, rubbing his nose red and scratching his belly with the other scuffed-up hand. His hair was colorless, his age vague, though no fuzz showed on his face, no squareness set his jaw, and his ribs would have been narrow even if they had meat on them. His eyes drooped, too tired to squint in the autumnal light. The sun slashed through his pupils, stirring shadows there.
"Comrade Tkachuk!" A young woman's voice cut through the brisk, ashy wind like scissors. "You have been accused of desertion, gross cowardice in the face of the enemy. Do you deny this?"
The boy stared at the pair of officers and their polished tribunal bench, dragged from a truck into this wasted field for the purpose of punishing him, as though the army were a terrible stern mother, and he a child who had not come to dinner when called. His nose dribbled.
"On the eighteenth of June," continued the staff sergeant, her pen scratching against her notepad like a bird in the dust, "did you report for service when Lieutenant-General Tereshenko opened his books to the village of Mikhaylovka so that all might know glory on earth through the gift of their bodies to the People?"
"N-no . . ." mumbled the boy, his voice thick and slurred, an illiterate voice, a field hand's lazy vowels. The officer's nose wrinkled in distaste.
"Why not?" she barked, the buttons on her olive uniform blinking like eyes in the sun.
"I . . . I'm . . . eleven, ma'am." The sergeant frowned, but did not open her arms to him, did not gather him up or smooth his hair or feed him bread. He hurried on. "And I got this bad leg. Broke when I were six. I...I falled out a cherry tree. The man come with his big book, and I run and hidded with the pigs. Don't want t'be in the army. Wouldn't be no good soldier anyhow."
The staff sergeant's gaze sharpened itself on the boy's fumbling speech. "The service of your body is not yours to give as you please. It belongs to the People, and you have stolen from us by means of your weakness. However, the People are not unkind. Just as you chose to hide among pigs rather than serve among lions, you may now choose your reprimand: execution by firing squad, which is no more than you deserve, or service in a penalty battalion."
The boy stared, his eyes glassy and mute.
"That will be the front lines, son," said the senior officer, her rough voice honey-full of infinite mercy. The rook ruffled her feathers; the shrike clacked her beak. The plover called, mournful and high. A wind kicked at the grasses, then, sudden and brief, neither warm nor sweet. The senior officer's thick, dark hair was plaited around her head like a corona, her stare hard and tired. "You probably won't survive. But you might. You're small; we all were, once. You could be missed in the ranks. It has been known to happen."
The staff sergeant looked bored. She made a note on her pad. "Comrade Tkachuk, what is it you want?"
The boy said nothing for a moment, his gaze moving between the two officers, seeking mercy like a boar snuffling for mushrooms in the loam. Finding nothing, he simply started to cry: thin, dry, starved tears cutting through the dirt on his face. His little chest heaved jerkily; his shoulders shook as though snow was already falling. He rubbed his nose furiously on a bare arm. Blood showed pinkish in the mucus.
"I want t'go home," he sobbed.
The plover shrieked as though pierced with long thorns. The shrike hid her face. The rook could not bear witness-she opened her black wings to the air.
Major-General Marya Morevna sat impassively and watched the child weep. The staff sergeant tapped her pen impatiently.
"Go," Morevna whispered. "Run. Don't look behind you." The boy looked at her dumbly. "Run, boy," the major-general whispered. The boy ran. Flecks of dead earth flew up behind him. The wind caught them, and carried them away towards the sea.