Reader reviews for Palimpsest

An absolutely astonishing book about four lost souls hunting for a sexually-transmitted city. It's erotic, haunting and poignant, and seduces the reader into a dreamlike state. On top of that, not a page goes by without the lush prose conjuring up the most amazing imagery. It certainly won't be to everyone's tastes, but I loved it.
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A city can be visited only by attaining a part of its map, and that map is sexually transmitted. This is how the book is advertised but that aspect gets old pretty quickly. The beauty in the book is something else: it's a woman who is dreadfully marked and maimed by her experience but never doubts that it's right. A man who loses his sister and then loses her ghost, and another who offers his tongue as payment to immigrate to the city. And a young girl who desperately seeks for the right parts of the map so she can continue her travel on a train that tells her it needs her. These things take time to develop and the language is so fancy, the city so nonsensical, it would be easy to give up if you didn't love the style already. I just about gave up, but the people grew on me and slowly I understood them and came to care about their quest. This is an odd book but it's also charming and magical and it delivers in the end. Read two chapters and see if you'll enjoy it. Not one chapter-- two.
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This book is beautiful. The language of it is mesmerising and enticing and sometimes cloying, there's so much of it, it's so thick with description and invention and ideas. I remember commenting about China Miéville's work, and how the cities of his work almost seem to be characters themselves -- I can see why people compare Palimpsest to his work, although in Palimpsest it's more true than ever.

Reading this book is like exploring the city in the same limited way as the characters. Sometimes frustratingly: there's a bit you want to see or understand or get to, but you can't, not yet. You have to give it time for it to unfold.

I can understand why it has quite a lot of love-or-hate reactions. If you give it time, it's a beguiling, rewarding book, but if you don't have the time or the patience or the inclination, it's impenetrable.

I didn't really feel like I got to know the characters or the city as well as I would want to. Ordinarily, that would be a major turn-off for me, but there was enough to keep me satisfied, and the writing, the richness of the detail, was enough to compensate for the lack of my usual favourites. If there's any criticism, it's that the characters didn't feel as rich and as real to me as I wanted them to -- there were enchanting details about them, but I didn't get to know them as I would like to.
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It's not for everyone, this beautiful, chaotic, often too rich novel. A slow magical dance that draws you in until you are there amidst a whirling dervish. Patience is required, take in the sights, make yourself at home, get to know the characters... and you will be richly rewarded.The story is narrated by a proud mysterious narrator and through "her" we meet four characters scattered all over our globe from San Francisco to Kyoto, all who have 'caught' Palimpsest, a patchwork city of the fantastical. The premise is startling as it is inventive, palimpsest as a sexual transmitted disease. One night of passion with someone who is 'infected' and you could wake up with a strange map like brand. This is the doorway. To enter again is an act of passion and to navigate the city you must find the right map. How far would you go to get what you want?There are some stunning ideas here, wrapped in gorgeous imagery, from the river of old clothes to a bamboo forest of the dead. The story is rhythmic, set into a pattern with each chapter starting with a glimpse of city, a city guide told by our unseen narrator. Each character has their allotted turn and when all have been visited time moves on. It an interesting stylistic choice but one which works well, smoothing the pacing and adding excitement with potentials.. if character a is doing x what will character b do.There are negatives (although not for me). The writing style may not be to everyone's tastes, the seemingly unrelated guides to the city, the not always likable characters. It maybe too fantastical for some but for me the whole thing works like clockwork. Reality grounds the baroque, the premise adds a stark darkness and the story flow beautifully because of the dreamy poetic style.
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It's hard for me to acknowledge that Valente's work is not for everyone, but it would be a lie if I were to say otherwise. For some, her fantastical imagery is too heavy, like swallowing stones, but for the children of poetry and monsters it is our bread and water. It is what thickens our blood and makes us strong. And much like the immigrants of Palimpsest, to meet another who has walked along these same bright paths is almost to face a mirror. There is a known quality to them that pulls at us ...more It's hard for me to acknowledge that Valente's work is not for everyone, but it would be a lie if I were to say otherwise. For some, her fantastical imagery is too heavy, like swallowing stones, but for the children of poetry and monsters it is our bread and water. It is what thickens our blood and makes us strong. And much like the immigrants of Palimpsest, to meet another who has walked along these same bright paths is almost to face a mirror. There is a known quality to them that pulls at us like a memory, like calling to like. Palimpsest is a call out to all those who have loved a city, real or imagined, and sought out those who have known such fierce, desperate love as well.
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Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente is one of those strange novels that we just need a new genre for. It is somewhere between poetry and prose, between fantasy and dreams. Palimpsest is a city where you can go only if you make sex with someone that had been already there and the city marks its people by putting a tattoo on their bodies. And these tattoos are controlling what you can see from the city - you need to be in contact with someone that have a part of the city on their skin in order to be able to go to this place. And the city is real and unreal at the same time - people see their dreams coming true there but at the same time anything that happens there remains valid even after they leave the city and come back to the real world. And the internal logic of the city allows everyone that wants to move permanently in the city - as long as they find the rest of their group (the first time you go to the city, you get connected to 3 more people that had entered almost at the same time and you feel anything that happens to them in this dreamy town) and convince them to emigrate. The novel is the story of one such quarter and their struggle to understand what happens to them and how to remain in Palimpsest forever.Sei is from Japan, obsessed with trains and the city manifests itself as a non-stop journey in a train which is not exactly train; in a world where trains are alive; November is a Californian girl that deals with bees... and it's not a surprise that the city will show her the other woman, in the other reality that deals with insects; Oleg is a locksmith from New York who had lost his sister before even being born and regardless of it, he still sees her ghost; Ludovico is an Italian master of books binding. Some of them meet unknown people, some of them just go to bed with their halves. But the result is the same - they receive Palimpsest's tattoos and enter the city. Every one of them had lost something - a parent, a sister or a wife and every one of them have their own lives and dreams. And in the world of Palimpsest some of those dreams come true.Each part of the book contains 4 chapters - going through the life of each of the characters - in the real and in the dreamy world. Even when they get together, this structure is not changed. And every part becomes shorter and shorter and the suspense just builds on. And the city is cruel and alive.The language in the novel is so poetic that the sex descriptions and the cruel things have their own ring to them - in the same way Dante's creations sound poetic and scary at the same time.That was the first novel by Catherynne M. Valente that I had read and I liked it. I am not sure that the novel needed the descriptions of the sex that lead to going to Palimpsest, as poetic and matter-of-factly it was and the novel would not have lost anything by not having it. But that's the author choice... and I will probably read some more novels by her - I loved the language and the imagination.
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In the author's own words, this book is about a "sexually transmitted city."Yeah.One of the weirdest, most beautiful, hard to comprehend books I've read in a long time. The story follows four people in different parts of the planet who come to the gates of Palimpsest at the same time. To do this, they have sex with someone who has a a bit of the city that grew like a rash on a part of their body and which our four characters will also sport now. The gates are the store of a Frog woman, where she gives them an ink foot bath. I could go on but it just gets weirder and weirder. Valente's prose is a tangled jungle of metaphor and imagery, the kind where it is really easy to get lost in (in a good and bad way).The sections where she describes the city are so dense I could hardly understand them, although it was worth while slogging through the metaphorical foliage. However, the sections where she describes the desperation and grief of her four characters and their need to get back to the city were poignant. Through all its fantastic, brightly-coloured plumes of prose, the core of this novel is stark loneliness and our all-too human desire for elusive connection. It is worth a read as long as you don't mind purple, all be-it masterfully done prose.
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When I first read the idea behind this novel, a sexually transmitted city, I was really interested. It really is a clever premise, but for me it didn't translate into a good book. This is especially sad because I read Valente's Orphan's Tales series and loved it and her newest book, Deathless, was probably the best I have read all year, but Palimpsest just didn't do it for me. I think part of it is that the writing is TOO lyrical, yeah it sounds nice, but it seems like she took so much time on the particular words, that she missed the mark on giving the sentences meaning. My other issue was with how erotic it is. Yeah, I know that I should have been expecting it somewhat because it is about a STC but still it wasn't my cup of tea. In review, I was really disappointed, but that doesn't take away from how awesome her other books are and I would suggest skipping Palimpsest and going straight on to Deathless.**Also a lot of her unique images/characters from her other books (fiddle bow handed person, and others) are also found in this one. That was a bit disappointing.
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I do believe Palimpsest qualifies as the sexiest book I've ever read. Whew! Palimpsest is a fantastical city, maybe the city of the dead, full of surrealistic buildings, people who have had animal parts grafted onto themselves, a place where many people are unable to speak, where there is a river of cream, a tea house roofed with fingernail clippings and the trains are living creatures who breed with each other and must be caught if a passenger wants to ride. The only way to get to this fantastic city is to have sex with a person who has a black map tattooed somewhere on their body. Men who have never done so before have sex with men, women have sex with women much more readily, and men and women have sex with each other. Occasionally there is incest. After you have had sex with a tattooed stranger a black tattoo will appear somewhere on your body, but before that you sleep and dream your way into Palimpsest. Besides trains, houses and even the whole city are personified. Everything is so strange that it's hard for the reader to understand where she is, who is talking and exactly what is happening. As one man said, "You just have to open yourself and let it in." In the end, all the sex notwithstanding, virtue and constancy are emphasized. I'll be reading more of Catherynne Valente. I wonder if her other books are so poetic.
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(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.)Regular readers know that last year, I once again attempted to read every nominee for science-fiction's Hugo Award in the brief space between their announcement and the winner's ceremony; and this in fact was the only one I wasn't able to get to in time, a dark-horse contender loved by only a small but intensely passionate audience. Unfortunately, though, this is not really SF so much as it is urban fantasy, not the traditional kind in which sexy vampires live among us but rather like a surrealist poem come to life; it's essentially the tale of a dreamlike city that exists hidden among us, where frog-faced oracles prance down Maxfield Parrish lanes, and where citizens identify each other in the waking world by a tattoo of the city map that mysteriously appears somewhere on their body after their first night-time visit. And while I can see why those who passionately love this book do so (it really is written in this hard-to-forget if not overly grandiose way), I have to confess that I'm not much of a fan of the entire urban-fantasy subgenre in general, and I question whether this should've even been nominated for a science-fiction award in the first place. If you're a fan of Cat Rambo or Justina Robson, you'll probably love this as well, although others might want to stay away altogether.Out of 10: 8.3, or 9.3 for fans of urban fantasy
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