Palimpsest: Gorgeous

fantasy 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”.

~Stefan Raets

fantasy book review Catherynne Valente PalimpsestPalimpsest, by Catherynne Valente, adds to the growing list of urban fantasy books whose setting isn’t mere background but plays a major role in the story. Valente brings the same lushly poetic style and sense of myth and fairytale that characterized The Orphan’s Tales, creating a more abstract and surrealistic version all her own. As well, rather than do a simple job of world-creating, she also plays with a more traditional staple of fantasy — the other world some lucky few in our own get to enter, whether it be via a rabbit hole, a wardrobe, a magical book, or some other rare portal.

The eponymous city, Palimpsest, is reached not through any of these randomly benevolent and neutral “doorways” but instead through sex; the doorway to Palimpsest is basically an STD, and like some STD’s, it leaves its mark, in this case a map of a small portion of the city on the body, like a tattoo. Have sex with someone “infected,” and during the sleep afterward you’ll be carried into that part of Palimpsest that appears on your partner’s skin. You can only explore that section, however; to move beyond it you must find another “carrier,” who will most likely be happy to run into you, as you now carry your own personal map somewhere on your body — a new place for them as well.

Your first time in the city, you are “quartered”— you enter a sort of customs’ house room with three other tourists who become connected to you before entering their appropriate section: you don’t know them, they may be half-a-world away in our world, and you may never see them again here or there. But they play an important role, as they are the means of permanently emigrating to Palimpsest.

The novel is multi-stranded via a seemingly omniscient narrator who can enter places usually off-limits. We follow four visitors: Amaya Sei is a ticket-seller in Japan’s rail system who has an obsession with trains and also must deal with the memories of her dead mother. November Aguilar is a beekeeper who lives near San Francisco, close to where her dead father is buried. Ludovico Conti lives in Rome with his wife Lucia who helps him publish small-run, often specialized, books until she leaves him. The final member of the quartered group is Oleg Sadakov, a Russian immigrant locksmith in New York City who is haunted by his drowned sister.

It doesn’t take much to see the connection between them of loss and grief; all are lonely, unhappy individuals. They become the typical “small band” often found in these sorts of portal stories — the children of Edward Eager, C.S. Lewis, or Madeline L’Engle — and several of the usual roles are played out: the determined leader, the frightened one, the lost one. As is often the case, the group has some sort of action their newly-discovered land requires of them to be saved.

But, as the sexual doorway clearly indicates, this is not a children’s tale. And the “quest” is not the usual drop a ring into a volcano, defeat the Dark Lord quest. It is slowly, tantalizing revealed and is nowhere near as simplistic or fantasy-mundane.

The story moves back and forth between each character’s experiences in our world and in Palimpsest, and they eventually intertwine. Each character’s story in Palimpsest opens up with our omniscient narrator introducing us to a new section of the city, almost as a guidebook does.
And what is the city like? Strange. Beautiful. Dangerous. Enticing. Mundanely urban. Phantasmagoric. Bosch meets Gormenghast meets Narnia meets Prague. Trains are alive and wild (commuters have to literally “catch” them) and long to fly but bees are made in factories. Houses grow like a child and other houses sometimes have to pack up and stroll away grumbling when one decides to expand. Inhabitants have shark heads, giraffe necks, cloven feet. Somewhere a cartographer “places her latest map on the windowsill like a fresh pie and slowly, as it cools, it opens along its own creases, its corners like wings, and takes halting flight … it has papery eyes, inky feathers, vellum claws.” Elsewhere, “Zarzaparrilla Street is paved with old coats. Layer after layer of fine corduroy and felt and wool … and [people] must navigate with pole and gondola, ever so gently thrusting aside the sleeves and lapels and weedy ties, fluttering like seaweed, [carrying] great curving pairs of scissors in case of sudden disaster.”

Everywhere are wonders, but there is also the usual urban fare: shops and noise and transport and hoity-toity restaurants and schools for the upper class and a financial district and fountains, etc. And there are dangers — gangs and groups opposed to tourists or immigrants. And there are veterans of a war whose important purpose and scale is only slowly revealed.

So how does Palimpsest succeed as a novel? It is lushly, often densely, poetic — an arch formal sort of style — rich in simile, metaphor, and imagery. This is both blessing and curse. Blessing just for the sheer pleasure of so much of the language — Valente’s poetry background shines through clearly and, given free reign in terms of fantastical subject matter, it sometimes takes your breath away. Curse because I thought the story too uniformly such. Not only are the descriptive passages of Palimpsest the city so poetic, but so are the descriptions of the characters and our world and, more problematically in my view, so is the speech. The characters too often spoke like poets and while I could make an argument that only a certain sort find their way to Palimpsest, I really couldn’t buy that. I wanted more differentiation in voice and style. This is more of a problem in the first half than the second, where we spend more time in Palimpsest itself and also where plot speeds up a bit to distract somewhat from style.

I also though the sexual aspect came too easily or quickly to the characters, especially when the sex is other than what one of the characters would consider “normal.” We’re told at times that the decision to have sex to get back to the city is troublesome, but it never feels that way. Nor did I feel the addictive nature was quite fully nailed down. It relied a bit too much on the reader trusting that Valente’s beautiful linguistic descriptions made it obvious why people would be so desperate to return, but that felt a bit too abstract and distant and too much a “built-in” reason rather than an organic one.

The characters’ needs also feel “built-in” — unhappy as they are, the desire to emigrate to Palimpsest is almost a no-brainer — what are they giving up here after all? I would have liked to have seen someone who would actually be faced with giving up a life of contentment or even happiness, or someone with a family. And their inevitable coming together happened too easily.

In general, I thought the first half of the book was less successful than the second half, once we start spending more time in Palimpsest. At that point the book began to win me over and by the end I was reading it ravenously. Some will be disappointed that it ends too soon or abruptly. It isn’t an ending that resolves itself fully — the characters and the city are still growing and changing — we’ve seen only the beginning of a few choices and what the ripples of those choices will be is left for us to ponder; Valente isn’t giving them up.

Palimpsest didn’t blow me away as did The Orphan’s Tales, but in some ways it pulled me in deeper. So, highly recommended, with strong encouragement to, if you’re struggling, try and reach that halfway point and see if it starts to also win you over.

Now, about the audio version, which I read later:

Catherynne Valente writes more poetry than prose, even in her ostensibly prose novels. The language teems with metaphor and simile, with rich sound quality and lush imagery even as it also employs poetry’s concision and elision.

With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that Brilliance Audio’s version of the book, narrated by Aasne Vigesaa, is absolutely fantastic. It’s even possible, and this is something I don’t believe I’ve ever even considered, let alone stated, that the audio version might even in some ways be a better “reading” experience. Vigesaa wraps her tongue round the rhythms and lushness of language, rising and falling in tone and volume and emphasis so that one is drawn, perhaps, even more fully into the realm of Palimpest. And one of my complaints in my review of the print version (below), that too many of the characters speak in the “arch-poetic” style, becomes less of a flaw and more of a strength in the audio version.

Because of the generally dulcet or melancholy or elegiac tone, and the density and richness of language, this is an audiobook that truly needs to be listened to, not simply heard. It isn’t something to put on while you’re cooking or running that quick 10-minute errand in the car. It’s the kind of audio you wish you could pop in and then drive for long distances across a relatively empty landscape (despite its urban setting), say, across the red rocks of Utah or the flat isolation of the Dakotas.

I wouldn’t give up reading the book for the audio because I loved lingering over some of the lines and passages in Palimpsest, but I would happily read the book, then “reread” it via audio for the enhanced experience.

~Bill Capossere

Palimpsest by Catherynne Valente fantasy book reviewsI was already a fan of Catherynne Valente thanks to The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland books and THE ORPHAN’S TALES duology, though I’ll admit to being a bit taken aback on learning the premise of Palimpsest. The title refers to a city that’s only accessible through dreams — but more specifically, by first sleeping with someone who’s already been there. As I’m not a fan of erotica, I was a little unsure what to expect from this story, but as it turns out, the sexual content makes up a very small part of the book’s length.

Palimpsest is a city filled with ghostly trains, bizarre restaurants, sentient tree houses, and a population comprised of half-human, half-animal war veterans (among plenty of other wonders). It’s as strange as it is beautiful, and only accessible from our world by having sex with someone that’s already been there, resulting in a visitation the next time you sleep, as well as a tattoo that resembles a section of the city that can appear anywhere on your body (and helps you identify others that have already been there).

There are some that adore the city and its wonders, others that fear and hate what it forces them to do, and still more that grow obsessed with finding a way to stay there forever. As it happens, the first time a person visits Palimpsest, they are brought together with three other newcomers in a ritual that holds the key to permanent immigration to the city. Our quartet of protagonists each lost something important in their life: a sister, a mother, a wife, a direction, and in coming together will eventually find a way to make themselves whole once more. Up to a point, that is.

Amaya Sei is a young Japanese woman fascinated by trains and scarred by her mother’s violent death. Oleg Sadakov is a Russian locksmith haunted (literally) by the ghost of his sister who died before he was even born. Italian bibliophile Ludovico Conti is obsessed with his runaway wife. November is a reclusive beekeeper who finds a new lease on life within the streets of Palimpsest —and in doing so, catching the attention of the mysterious Casimira, a woman who seems to have something to do with the veiled mentions of a war at some point in Palimpsest’s past.

The book alternates (with different fonts) between chapters that take place in Palimpsest and those set in the real world. The real beauty of Valente’s craft — which separates her from many other urban fantasy writers — is that its depiction of the ordinary world is just as haunting and magical as the dreamscape of Palimpsest. Neither do her characters get overwhelmed by the machinations of her constructed world or the intricacy of her language.

If anything, the characters tend to overshadow the plot, of which there isn’t much. Valente is interested in the strangeness of the city, spending pages and pages describing its landmarks and customs, but also the psychology of her main characters, exploring how they deal with the means of entering the city, their activities once they’re inside it, and their attempts to find each other in the waking world. There is no real conflict or antagonist for them to overcome; instead Valente concentrates on what this quartet wants, how they plan to get it, and their relationship to Palimpsest.

Along the way there is plenty to enjoy courtesy of Valente’s near-limitless imagination. Houses that are grown like trees, ghosts that are formed out of memories, trains that can procreate, moonlight that has healing qualities, frog-headed fortune tellers — the list goes on. As a fan of her work, what I found most interesting were several allusions to her other books, specifically to The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland. I’m not entirely sure of the publishing chronology (I know that Circumnavigated was posted on-line long before it became a proper book), but it’s quoted throughout Palimpsest and there are a few narrative parallels between the two stories — namely that the closest thing Palimpsest has to an antagonist is attempting to do the exact opposite of what the Marquess in Circumnavigated was up to.

So in short: there is no real structure to the plot. The characters are distant and somewhat unrelatable — not to each other, but perhaps to the reader. Questions are raised that never get resolved. Though Valente does not get carried away with her descriptions of Palimpsest, the fact that her trademark prose is used to describe the real world as well as the dreamscape means that the reader could potentially have some difficulty in telling them apart (presumably this is why they gave each segment different fonts). There’s no real place for the reader to “rest” — instead it’s an ongoing assault of dense poetic-prose and strange imagery.

Only occasionally does it tip into purple prose, usually in the dialogue. I can accept all sorts of elaborate descriptiveness in third-person narration, but as soon as a character starts waxing lyrically about metaphors or their existential crisis or the colour of the fruit on the dining room table, my suspension of disbelief fails. People just don’t talk like that, and it’s always bugged me when stories — no matter how beautifully told — characterizes everyone as a poet.

So Palimpsest is a challenging book, a difficult book, an unusual book, but for those who enjoy what Valente has to offer — a rewarding book … as long as you know what to expect.

~Rebecca Fisher

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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.

View all posts by Stefan Raets (RETIRED)


  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. I look forward to listening to this one! Thanks, Bill!

  4. Looks like Valente doesn’t like to hear the P word in her reviews, Bill…

  5. She’s one of my favorite authors and I think it’s sad that she’s annoyed at our admiration of her beautiful words. For those of us who read a lot of fantasy, we clearly see and appreciate the distinctiveness of her prose. Since she is a poet, it doesn’t seem like she’d get upset that we use that word (and that we positively reviewed her book and encouraged people to buy it). Maybe she’s having a bad day….

  6. Here’s what I posted in response to her post:

    I can understand that having people constantly pulling out the same few words when referring to your work can get tiresome, but as one of the reviewers who is guilty of having used the “P” word, I was a bit taken aback by your post because, honestly, it wasn’t meant as anything but a huge and heartfelt compliment. Given that you put “ostensibly” in quotes, I am guessing (maybe incorrectly) that another review that appeared today on the site I write for was, at least in part, the motivation for your post.

    Calling the style you employ in your novels “poetry” is obviously not correct, but since so many other writers in the genre use fairly dry, no-nonsense prose, it felt like an adequate way to contrast the lyricism in your prose with the next 10 novels on the shelf. The way you use rhythm and rhyme, and the fact that your sentences practically beg to be read out loud, all reminded me of a form of writing that pays attention to the form of the text as much as it does to the content.

    It saddens me to no end that you took such offense to it when I tried to express my sincere admiration for your writing by innocently using a word that I meant as a heartfelt compliment, and as something that sets you apart – in a good way – from the vast majority of the field.

  7. I read her post, and I’m bothered that she dislikes the P word because of the length and the complex plots of her books…epic poetry is long and has a plot…

  8. Aw, c’mon guys. If she didn’t get annoyed when I called the prose in Palimpsest pretentious, I hardly think a pint-sized mention of poetry is going to piss her off profoundly.

    (I’m sorry! Once I got started I just couldn’t stop! At least I didn’t make it rhyme…)

  9. I can’t wait to read this! I love her.

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