Book Review: Palimpsest

Synopsis according to Goodreads:
"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 is a one of those genre-defying, expectation-defying books. Not in that I expected it to be crap, and it was the best thing ever, but in that it’s a contemporary adventure, and a fantasy, with some very erotic writing (but nothing very graphic), and even after finishing it I’m not sure I understand it all.

I came to Catherynne M. Valente by way of SJ Tucker, and have already read the Fairyland series before starting this one. So my order is all kinds of reversed. This book, like the Fairyland series, bears Valente’s trademark creative whimsy and macabre writing. She makes very interesting visuals of beautiful and terrible things, lighthearted and deadly, and the end result is (for me) unsettling.

At its heart, this book touches on some very primal human things: the need for community, defensiveness of belief, sensing but not understanding things beyond ourselves, and the hope for something greater than our little human sufferings. But it does so with a twisting path of 4 primary characters, and a flip-flopping narrative (third person in ‘the real world’, first person omniscient in Palimpsest). The characters were very complex, but the only one I felt any inkling of understanding was Ludo, and not very much with that. Most of the characters in her stories are very selfish, all the time, and it makes me feel frustrated and alienated.

Overall, I would recommend this for fans of contemporary fantasy along the dark and unknowable bent. If you don’t get squicked out easily, if you assume everyone is self-centered, if you don’t mind not understand what the heck just happened, and if you can easily accept that sexual orientation, desires, and drive are as fluid as water for everyone, everywhere*, this is probably a book you’ll enjoy.

* Don’t get me wrong- I don’t mind titillating fiction, and the concept of a city that’s an STD is interesting, but the blithe acceptance of everyone that Palimpsest is worth a sort of immediate sexual desperation (especially considering everything we see of the city is dangerous, painful, and mean) didn’t sit well with me.

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