I name Catherynne Valente an honorary Russian. She has a Russian soul, somehow; otherwise how could she have written this book?! This is a book about love. And life. Death. War. Loss. Hope. Despair. "Life is like that." I grew up with these characters - in so many Russian folk tales, in so many Russian movies. The story is always the same. The evil Koschei the Deathless and Baba-Yaga, the kidnapped Marya Morevna (or Yelena, or Vasilisa), the brave Ivan who rescues her... These stories have been told countless times. But what if?... What if Koschei is the Tsar of Life? And what if he loves Marya and she loves him back? And what if there is a neverending tug of war in their tumultous marriage? And what if the story happens in Soviet Union in 1920s-1940s? And finally, most importantly, what if you, the reader, knew that at some point you would have to see Leningrad in 1942? "No one is now what they were before the war. There’s just no getting any of it back." For me, this was, above anything, the story of war and loss. The war between mythical country of Buyan and Viy, the Tsar of Death. The Great Patriotic War between Soviet Union and Germany. The Leningrad blockade. Leningrad was under siege by the Nazis from 1941 to 1943 - arguably the most lethal siege in history. Thousands of people froze and starved to death - several hundred per day in the winter of 1942. People ate sawdust bread, rats, pets, and each other. People died right on the streets. And yet the city - the Leningraders - never gave up."A war story is a black space. On the one side is before and on the other side is after, and what is inside belongs only to the dead." Chapter 23 of this book tore my heart to pieces. As you may guess, this is the part with the blockade. I will not say much more except for quotes and real blockade pictures. They speak for themselves. "That night, she burned all the books in the attic for heat. She carried them down, one by one, because December ate up her strength. She lit them in the stove while they all huddled around and put out their hands. Last one in was the Pushkin, and she cried, but without tears, because you cannot have tears without bread." "A ration card says, This much life we have allotted you. It says, This much death we can keep from your door. But no more. It says, In Leningrad there is only so much life to go around. It says, The only thing not rationed in Leningrad is death." (This picture is from the diaries of Tanya Savicheva, a young girl during the blockade. Each page is about a loved one's death. The last says, "Everybody died. Only Tanya is left". She died shortly after. My heart breaks.)--------------------------------------------------------------------This story is also about love. Its allures and pitfalls, its rewards and struggles. It's about the secret and private world of marriage. About hurting the one you love. About choices and sacrifices. About power and submission. Love is a war. "No one is now what they were before the war." And "[...]after love, no one is what they were before." "A marriage is a private thing. It has its own wild laws, and secret histories, and savage acts, and what passes between married people is incomprehensible to outsiders. We look terrible to you, and severe, and you see our blood flying, but what we carry between us is hard-won, and we made it just as we wished it to be, just the color, just the shape." The story Valente weaves is poignant and gut-wrenchingly beautiful. It is poetic and melodic like Russian folklore from which it draws inspiration. It is humorous (albeit darkly so) and bittersweet, intimate and hopeful, both simple and complex at the same time. It is strange and captivating. It is about loss and friendship and betrayal. There is no good or evil, black or white. In this, it's very human. And I love it.We see the mystical world of Russian folklore, beautifully captured by Valente. Rusalkas and leshy, firebirds and prophetic birds, flying mortar and pestle and Yaga's hut on chicken legs. The "real world" parts of the story are very well done as well, the mixture of realism and mysticism. The domovye - house imps - form committees and discover the advantages of filing claims over traditional mischief. "“You must see,” chirped Chairman Venik finally, “that a communal house requires communal domoviye, and communal domoviye require a committee. We are happy to do our part! It is a new world, and we do not wish to be left behind.”Marya is denied the red Pioneer scarf - and carries it in her heart. Koschei comes to get her - and she follows him without thinking twice since in the Soviet Union "When they come for you, her mother had once warned, you have to go. It’s not about wanting or not wanting." Real life Party slogans permeate the mythical country of Buyan. Zmei Gorynych, the legendary three-headed dragon, deals with bureaucracy of the Purges. And Baba Comrade Yaga teaches Marya a cold but real lesson: "The goblins of the city may hold committees to divide a single potato, but the strong and the cruel still sit on the hill, and drink vodka, and wear black furs, and slurp borscht by the pail, like blood. Children may wear through their socks marching in righteous parades, but Papa never misses his wine with supper. Therefore, it is better to be strong and cruel than to be fair. At least, one eats better that way. And morality is more dependent on the state of one’s stomach than of one’s nation." And, of course, this book is also about the power of stories which play out a certain way because that's how they are supposed to play out. Some things are inevitable - or are they? Can you change fate? Does it matter if you try? For it to happen the way it always happens [...] The Church always splits. Ukraine always withers in a poison wind [...] You could tell your tale differently this time, I suppose. But you won’t [...] You will always fall in love, and it will always be like having your throat cut, just that fast. You will always run away with her. You will always lose her. You will always be a fool. You will always be dead, in a city of ice, snow falling into your ear. You have already done all of this and will do it again. --------------------------------------Incredible, masterful, poignant, beautiful book that will always stay with me. A book that captures Russian soul. Chapter 23 still haunts me. 5 stars is not enough.