Tuesday, October 19, 2010


I’ll admit that this is going to be a weird review, mainly because Palimpsest is one of the weirdest books I’ve ever read.

If you like your novels with a coherent storyline then read no further, because Palimpsest will not be for you. At times I wondered if author Cat Valente just wrote down every strange and disconnected thought she’d ever had, rolled them all up into a big ball, threw them at the page then wrote about whatever happened to stick.

It’s rather hard to describe Palimpsest. You don’t have to know what the word means to read the book, but the dictionary definition fits and helps:

a parchment or the like from which writing has been partially or completely erased to make room for another text.

There are 4 main characters: Oleg, a transplanted New York City locksmith who has never recovered from the loss of his sister; the beekeeper November, based on the West Coast of the US; Ludovico, an Italian binder of rare books in Rome; and a young, Japanese trainspotter named Sei. Palimpsest is what binds these 4 disparate and geographically distant individuals together, that and the loss of someone significant in their lives.

Palimpsest is a world that can only be reached by having an intense physical encounter with another individual who has a part of the world tattooed on their skin. Once Palimpsest has been visited, the visitor has contracted the ‘virus’, and will forever wear some of the world on their own body and this will allow them to transmit it to other travellers in the same way they first encountered the strange and terrifying world.

The world of Palimpsest is one where the author took her imagination off the leash, let it run wherever it wanted and leave it’s mark all over the place. The breadth and depth of Valente’s imagination is jaw droppingly astounding, the words she uses to bring it to life are perfect and make it real, despite how truly odd it all sounds.

You don’t read Palimpsest so much as you experience it. It’s not a book I can recommend as being good or bad, It transcends that sort of categorisation. It is not surprising that it was nominated for a Hugo, it’s also not surprising that it didn’t win.

I’d never read any of Catherynne M. Valente’s work before and this is not a book I would have picked up without having seen the author at Aussiecon. Despite the brilliance of the prose I struggle without a genuine storyline and I found it hard to connect to any of the characters. They were interesting, but I simply could not empathise with them. This won’t stop me from reading more of Cat’s work, she’s a writer of rare talent and she has upcoming works which have piqued my interest.

I’m not at all sad that I read Palimpsest, in fact I think my reading life would have been the poorer for not discovering it.


  1. This is an excellent review!

    Everything said, head-on. Your experience with the prose (=brilliant) and the vivid imagination this author shows is the same as mine and with Palimpsest I actually could do without a story-arc. Seeing that this has mattered to you greatly, I recommend you refrain from touching 'The Grass Cutting Sword' and rather turn your attention to 'The Orphan's Tales'.

    -- Mylène

  2. Mylene, thankyou for reading and commenting. I would like to read more of Cat's work and I will get her Prester John series (the name escapes me at present), I'll also check out your recommendation. Thanks.