Palimpsest: Gorgeous

Catherynne Valente Palimpsestfantasy book review Catherynne Valente PalimpsestPalimpsest by Catherynne Valente

The first thing that strikes you about Palimpsest is the gorgeous prose. Every sentence is crafted with the utmost care, resulting in a novel that almost reads like poetry. It simply begs to be read out loud. I’ve read many books that attempt this kind of lush prose, but Palimpsest is one of the most successful and most beautiful.

Palimpsest is a sexually transmitted city. People who have been there have a small tattoo — a piece of the city’s map — somewhere on their body. Sleep with them, and you are transported there. When you wake up, back in the real world, you will find a small tattoo of another part of Palimpsest on your body — and you will want to go back.

The story follows four people who are all newcomers to Palimpsest — a young Japanese woman, a beekeeper, a locksmith, a bookbinder. They all have lost something in the real world and are naturally drawn to Palimpsest. As the story progresses, more and more details about their lives, and about the strange city of Palimpsest, are revealed. While the novel, at first, seems like four more or less independent stories told in alternating chapters, slowly but surely a plot develops that connects everything and leads to a beautiful, bittersweet conclusion.

An interesting aspect of the novel is its strained eroticism. After the initial “connections” that introduce the four protagonists to Palimpsest, they find themselves wanting to return, which can only be done by sleeping with another “infected” person. The resulting scenes are almost uncomfortable to read — while they’re at times fairly explicit, the sex is mainly a mode of transportation, something you have to get through.

Palimpsest is a novel to read slowly and savor, because it’ll just be over all too soon. I found myself rereading entire chapters after turning the last page. I would recommend this without hesitation to fans of China Mieville, but also to anyone else who appreciates a slow-moving, lyrical, and entirely unique story. Absolutely gorgeous.

Here you can read the short story “Palimpsest” that “started it all”.

Palimpsest — (2009) From the Author’s Website: There is a city you have never heard of. It is a city of dreams and flesh, of night-terrors and exaltation. It is a city that exists as a virus, passed from person to person, on skin and on bone, streets and alleys and factories and orchestral halls crawling and thriving, infinitesimally small, on the bodies of those who have been touched by Palimpsest. And once you  have entered this place, once you have tasted it, you will do anything to get back.

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STEFAN RAETS (on FanLit's staff August 2009 — February 2012) reads and reviews science fiction and fantasy whenever he isn’t distracted by less important things like eating and sleeping. In February 2012, he retired from FanLit to focus on his blog Far Beyond Reality.

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  1. This sounds like a wonderful book to get lost in! I am adding this one to my list to get. I like the idea in the book and if the writing is as fluent as you say I have to read it. Sound like a great read I will enjoy. Thanks for the review!

  2. I can’t recommend this novel enough, so I definitely hope you’ll check it out. If you want a sample of her prose, check out the link at the bottom of the review. The entire novel is written in that style.

  3. On my list. I loved Valente’s The Orphan’s Tale.

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