Review: Palimpsest

Posted: July 21, 2010 by in Books We Like (4/5 single_star) Meta: Catherynne M. Valente, Fantasy

I was first introduced to the work of Catherynne M. Valente a few years ago when my brother bought me THE ORPHAN TALES: IN THE NIGHT GARDEN (Amazon). Based entirely on that one present he is now my favorite brother. That book was amazing. I almost cried when it was over because there wasn’t any more of that fascinating story to read. I never wanted it to end. Needless to say when Valente’s PALIMPSEST (Amazon) was released I picked up a copy immediately hungry for another beautiful story.

PALIMPSEST is the tale of a sexually transmitted city.

For some of you that may be all you need to know, and I won’t say I blame you. When I find sex in a book I usually try to skim the scene for vital information but generally skip it. Just not my cup of tea. Those of you who want to know more about the book read on.

PALIMPSEST follows the lives of four different characters: a bee keeper, a locksmith, a book binder from Italy, and a Japanese girl obsessed with trains. Each of these characters finds their way to Palimpsest by having sex with someone who has already been there. As these four enter the city, they are bonded together and able to share impressions with each other both in Palimpsest and the waking world. In addition, when they awake they have been marked with a strange tattoo-like mark in the form of a map of the piece of the city. The book follows these characters in alternating chapters first as they wander around the real world trying desperately to find a way back to the fantastic city, and then follows them in turn during their stay in the city.

The city of Palimpsest itself is a character full of wonderful and weird denizens. I relished the time I spent in that city through the eyes of the various characters. It is truly a beautiful place. Fascinating, magical, haunting, flawed and at times creepy. In other words, it felt real. Not a real city, not somewhere you’ve ever been, but it had an air of believability. This isn’t Wonderland or Oz–here there be monsters. I was surprised also to find myself intrigued as much with the real world as the imaginary one. The characters Valente has sketched for us are weird and wonderful. Each has their own quirks and problems and I found myself caught up in their lives and their interactions with the world (both real and Palimpsest).

PALIMPSEST is brilliant and well written and interesting...but it isn't for everyone.

The best part about this book for me was the language. I find myself inadequately prepared to describe in words the beauty of Valente’s prose. This book is a feast, where others are an appetizer. If her words were brush strokes on a canvas, her name would be whispered in the same breath as Michelangelo and DaVinci. It’s that beautiful. This is not a quick read (not if you do it right). This is a book that lives with you. I often found myself reading and rereading sentences just to enjoy the word play.

The only problem I had with the book was the sex. There was A LOT of it. Each time a character goes to Palimpsest, they need to have intercourse with someone else who has been to the fabled city to get there. None of the scenes are particularly long, most of them just a paragraph or two, but like I said, there’s a bunch of them. The problem is…I understand what she’s trying to do. When two people get together and form a relationship, something new is formed, something more than just a mix of the two, something bigger. Palimpsest is a symbol of that union, be it good or bad. The metaphor works well, as the only way that any one can get to Palimpsest is to give themselves to another. Each person contains a bit of the city in them, and depending on whom you sleep with will vary the location of where you go. But like I said I don’t like sex scenes. After awhile it got really old and it seemed to me that Valente had a checklist of sexual scenarios to run through during the course of the book. She checked them all off her list by my account.

Is the book brilliant? Absolutely. Is it well written and an interesting story? Yes. Is it worthy of the Hugo nomination it got? For sure. Is it good enough to win? I think it may. Is this a book for everyone? Absolutely not. The thick language could be a deterrent for some (not me, I loved every minute of it), but I’m sure that what will keep most people away is the sex. Read at your own discretion. If you want a brilliant read that I have no reservations giving, read both of the books in the Orphans Tales series. It doesn’t get better than that.

  • Recommended Age: 18+. Maybe you missed it, but there’s a lot of sex in here.
  • Language: A bit, but if the sex doesn’t put you off, the language won’t
  • Violence: Not much, a few gruesome moments here or there
  • Sex: Uh, yeah


  • Raethe says:

    Bwahaha. “The tale of a sexually transmitted city.” Bwahahahaha.

    Ahem. Snickers aside, your review matches up with m y thoughts of the book on pretty much every count. 🙂

  • Will says:

    Wow… you had me a 'Sexually-transmitted city'. That was probably the intention of the phrasing, however.

    I devoured this book. And what's freaking me out, having finished it not more than ten minutes ago, is that now I have a strange black marking on my hand that looks suspiciously like a piece of a map…

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