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Catherynne M. Valente: Palimpsest

I discovered Catherynne Valente through her Orphan’s Tales books, which were an amazing blend of beautiful poetic prose and cerebral puzzle-box structure. If I make a Top Ten list at some point they’re going to be contenders.

Palimpsest is her newest novel, and it is once again full of beautiful poetic prose, though my left brain missed the more intellectual pleasures of those other books. Four people, all with tenuous and diminishing connections to the real world, find themselves able to visit a dream city named Palimpsest, though only by having sex with others who, like them, have had mysterious maps of areas of the city appear on their skin. The plot of the book mostly concerns their attempts to become permanent residents, though the plot is a little beside the point compared with the overflowingly rich descriptions of the gorgeously grotesque Palimpsest and its inhabitants, and the exploration of the characters’ attempts to find there what they’ve lost in this world.

It was interesting to read a book with so much sex (it is, after all, the way that the characters travel), presented in a manner that, while often emotional, isn’t overly erotic or titillating. And I appreciated the matter-of-factness in which couplings of various gender-parities and sizes are presented without either excuse or special attention.

I don’t want to give too much away, but the plotting element does pick up as the book proceeds, and the arc that it follows to the conclusion is well constructed and gripping, making Palimpsest more than just the collection of beautiful dream sequences I was initially concerned it might be. Although The Orphan’s Tales are still the books of hers I’m going to press on people first, this is a good intro to Valente’s writing for those who don’t want to commit to a thousand-page epic.

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