Posted by: Mish | March 14, 2009


In Catherynne M. Valente’s evocative urban fantasy, Palimpsest:

“Between life and death, dreaming and waking, at the train stop beyond the end of the world is the city of Palimpsest. To get there is a miracle, a mystery, a gift, and a curse – a voyage permitted only to those who’ve always believed there’s another world than the one that meets the eye. Those fated to make the passage are marked forever by a map of that wondrous city tattooed on their flesh after a single orgasmic night.

To this kingdom of ghost trains, lion-priests, living kanji, and cream-filled canals come four travelers: Oleg, a New York locksmith; the beekeeper November; Ludovico, a binder of rare books; and a young Japanese woman named Sei. They’ve each lost something important – a wife, a lover, a sister, a direction in life – and what they will find in Palimpsest is more than they could ever imagine.”

palimpsest: from Latin and Greek for “scraped clean and used again”

  • A manuscript, typically of papyrus or parchment, that has been written on more than once, with the earlier writing incompletely erased and often legible.
  • An object, place, or area that reflects its history.
  • Adjective- palimpsestic

Palimpsest‘s themes include: love, loss, grace, relationships, searching, heaven, hell, desire, need, belonging, home, emotional and physical boundaries, beauty, ugliness, jealousy, pain, secrets, remembrance, and of course, palimpsest. But these are merely simple words used to express ideas that are often more complex. Its characters are also multidimensional and well developed. Their joys and sorrows, emotions, and what drives them allows the reader to empathize with them. The story and its characters’ depth make Palimpsest worth revisiting, peeling back a layer each time and discovering the intricacies of their avenues.

Through the novel’s chapters, pieces of the city and story are put into place. The narration goes from character to character and from this world to that of Palimpsest. Like any unknown city, it may be confusing at first, but it comes to make more sense. It’s not unlike the characters new to the city having to find their way among its streets. The way Palimpsest is written and laid out actually works quite well with the story.

Catherynne’s intoxicating writing is descriptive and imaginative. Her use of language is poetic and, true to the cover, she “weaves a lyrically erotic spell”. From the opening paragraph, a taste:

“On the corner of 16th Street and Hieratica a factory sings and sighs. Look: its thin spires flash green, and spit long loops of white flame into the night. Casimira owns this place, as did her father and her grandmother and probably her most distant progenitor. It is pleasant to imagine them, curling and uncurling their proboscis-fingers against machines of stick and bone. There has always been a Casimira, except when, occasionally, there is a Casimir.”

For a longer sampling, the short story from which the novel grew may be read at the Senses Five Press website. It is also available in the paperback form of  Paper Cities, an Anthology of Urban Fantasy. After a second reading, I can see it as an accompaniment or sequel to the novel. Since the short’s characters made minor appearances in the novel, I also now have a better understanding of who and what.

Since I first heard about it in January, I’ve been wanting to read Palimpsest. 52 days really isn’t that long of a wait, but time is relative. Never before have I purchased a book hot off the press. Now that I’ve slowly savored the taste of Catherynne’s words and imagery, it was worth both and I’d like to read the Orphan’s Tales and perhaps some of her poetry. Should Palimpsest also be available as an audio book I would probably purchase it, provided the story is told by Catherynne. After hearing her readings during the release gala, no one else could compare. Well, with the exception of SJ Tucker, whose soundtracks fit perfectly with Catherynne’s stories. The writer and the bard are currently reading and singing their way across the U.S. until the end of April, but I digress.

Although I thoroughly enjoyed Palimpsest, and will again, I don’t think it’s everyone’s cup of tea. I rate it PG-13/R for some of its content and subject matter. Catherynne’s vivid imagery portrays the beautiful and the grotesque. One person I spoke to said he liked the book, but found it challenging. Alas, time was such that we couldn’t continue our conversation so instead I bought a second copy for a friend, who shares my inclination towards fantasy novels and challenges. That aside, I highly recommend venturing into Catherynne M. Valente’s Palimpsest.



  • “You bare your belly to a great beast and endure trials and it all works itself out. There is a treasure or a sword. Or a woman. And that thing is yours not because you defeated anything, or because your flesh was hard and unyielding, but because you were worthy of it, worthy all along. The trials and the beast were just a way of telling the world you wanted it, and the world asking in her hard way, hard as bones and hollow mountains, if you really and truly did.” (148)
  • “Faithfulness must be answered with faithfulness, and that is a harder lesson than it may sound.” (229)
  • “The place where air meets ice is fraught with possibility.” (241)
  • “Do you think that’s logical? That a creature can be virtuous just because it is loved and sought after, that the act of being loved, of being sought after, even if it is passive, is equal to an act of martyrdom or great piety, which is active? That it can confer grace to a whole species? (250)
  • “She is so spread out now, there must be a list of all the things she is that are not herself. But at the bottom of her heart, she is still November.” (280)
  • “We all want to be what we were made to be. It is in our nature to want such things. We are set in motion, we cannot be stopped, and we want to fulfill our part.” (344)



  1. All these glowing reviews and excerpts of Palimpsest make me want to read it even more. Valente is a genius with words and creating ambience through words. My admiration is great but that’s not reflected in my rate of reading! I’ll get to Palimpsest eventually!

  2. This was a hard review to write, not sure where to start and wondering if I could do Cat’s writing justice. Your comment makes me think I did right. Finishing Palimpsest was bittersweet. It’s over? vs. Next in line. Eh, I’ll just read it again.

  3. Sounds fascinating! And your timing is awesome. Palimpsest was a word I was going to look up, having heard it in my anthro seminar for the first time last Friday.

  4. Twas that indeed. That’s me, good with the timing.

    Since I read about the making of it, I’ve been craving mochi. Think next time I’m in China Town I’m gonna have to pick up some pounded to uber-stickiness rice up. Mmm..tasty treat…

    Read the first 50 pages of Lathe of Heaven yesterday. Guess it’s okay.

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