Catherynne M. Valente
In the beginning of this book, I wasn’t sure at all of where it was taking me, but having enjoyed Deathless and The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making as much as I did, I trusted Valente and continued to read as the book wove around much like a serpent winds its way through a forest. Having said that, I must say, this tale is perfection. It’s the golden light of sunset on a crisp fall day and the ideal cup of Earl Grey served hot from a bone china teapot. Valente has a way with words that I am supremely jealous of. In my mind, words take flight around her and they dance through the air like a glittering flock of lexicon. She inspires me to think about the words I use and the ways I construct my sentences. It makes me want to write in a different manner. Not so much an abdication of my writing style, but more a cutting away of the extraneous styles I’ve absorbed through the years to become a more concentrated form of my style. For that, I have to thank Ms. Valente.
Palimpsest, a city so like a dream as to be immediately discounted as such upon waking, lives in a world that can only be arrived at by having sex with someone who bears the mark of it. This mark is so much more than a simple tattoo. It’s a piece of the map of Palimpsest. By communing with the bearer of the map, one is transported into that very map and allowed to roam free until sleep returns them to the everyday world. November, Oleg, Ludovico, and Sei have all acquired the map in various ways with various people, but the stories of these four people are more interwoven than even they understand. In a world that is more real than the one we live and breathe in, these four people will find that Palimpsest is so much more than they ever could have imagined.
I had put off this story for a little while, knowing that, of course, I would love it as soon as I turned page 1. That wasn’t true this time. Instead it was something different and more enjoyable. The story grew on me as the characters’ stories intertwined into Palimpsest. It slowly became familiar and loved in the way that a lifetime friendship develops over time, gradually becoming so familiar that jokes of ten years ago are still funny. The way Valente crafted this story (and I do mean crafted) is reminiscent of the weavers of great tapestries. This book feels like the Unicorn Tapestries. They tell a story so heartrendingly beautiful and intricate that you want to step into it. The language is silky, steeped in cultures that cross the planet and ages that have long since been forgotten by most of the world. Even the title speaks to a process that disappeared from the collective consciousness centuries ago. Its implications of something being scrapped clean to be used anew apply to the city as much as it would to a fourteenth century manuscript.
The characters are, of course, not your average people. They are so much more than that. These are not people who will shop at the Gap. Instead they would comb rare book stores until they can find the last Gutenberg Bible. Perhaps it’s because I’m such an incurable bibliophile, but her characters are always familiar to me. These people who live with bees, or find the keys that locks are crying out for, or live in a home that smells of binding glue, parchment, and ink, or make list after list, these are characters who any bibliophile would openly accept into their hearts. Valente has this uncanny way of writing characters that already existed in my imagination. I just hadn’t seen them there yet.
One thing, I enjoyed in particular was the way Valente wrote The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making into this story. I know that Fairyland was published a full two years after this story, which completely blows my mind, but in so many ways it completely works. Tying that story into this one only served to make it richer. It acted as yet another hook into me, making the story stick to my ribs, like an oatmeal breakfast on a blustery winter’s morning. I can’t imagine how delighted Valente fans who read this book first must have been with Fairyland was published. Though it works both ways. Finding Fairyland in here made it familiar to me in a way that rarely happens in stories.
I can’t recommend this book enough. It is not just perfection. It is the way the world should be looked at. I rather imagine the world would be a more magical place if we could all look at it in the way Valente seems to.
5 ink bottles and whatever you can find in the closet between worlds.