Review: Catherynne Valente\’s Palimpsest

Upon Mount Olympolis resides the pantheon of the great cities of fantasy literature.  New Crobuzon sits upon a throne of wings and clockwork, while Lankhmar\’s throne of blackened bones and tarnished coins is no less impressive for its long years of wear.  Ankh-Morpork\’s oaken throne is carved with jocular elephants, who each with a wink of an eye and a curl of a trunk invite you to laugh along with them.

No less exalted on Olympolis is the fey city of Palimpsest.  Her throne is at first one thing, then another, depending on who is looking at it and how the light hits it at the moment – but it is always finely wrought of the richest materials, though often ones no earthly craftsperson would ever use to make a chair.  Her temples and shrines draw penitents who seek to bask in her otherworldly glory and suitors who cannot live without her terrible love, no matter what it might cost them.

Palimpsest is the story of a sexually transmitted city, and of four such pilgrims who each encounter the city and find that they need to return.  The pilgrims are residents of the world as we-the-readers know it, but Palimpsest is built on fairy logic and surrealism.  The author describes the city and its inhabitants with lush language and vivid imagery, anchored by the deep, emotional truths that govern Palimpsest\’s world as surely as the laws of physics govern our own.  If the mark of a great storyteller is the ability to tell you things you know to be untrue and then make your heart believe in them anyway, then Catherynne Valente is a master of the craft.

The city of Palimpsest thrives on human need.  Those who have visited are left with a gut-deep yearning that slowly leaches the color out of the rest of the world.  Palimpsest is a compulsion – the kind of desire that the Buddha warned you about.  Possibly someone who is perfectly satisfied with their life on Earth would not feel such need to return as the four protagonists do, but perfection is boring; the flaws and scars and traumas that the characters carry back and forth between our world and Palimpsest are as compelling as the city itself, and just as richly detailed.  Palimpsest and all its wonders draw the readers into the book and tantalize us with possibilities, but ultimately it\’s the loss and need and loneliness of November, Ludovico, Sei, and Oleg that compel us to stay and see their journey through to the end.  Along the way we get to make sense of Palimpsest itself, as the disparate, absurd details we have learned get slowly and satisfyingly knotted together into a cohesive whole.

I could say so much more about the book, but ultimately my own words will fall short, and if you haven\’t read it you deserve the opportunity to discover all of Palimpsest\’s secrets for yourself.


There are no comments yet...Kick things off by filling out the form below.

Leave a Comment