Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente

Title: Palimpsest
Author: Catherynne M. Valente
Genre: fantasy
“You bare your belly to a great beast and endure trials and it all works itself out. There is a treasure or a sword. Or a woman. And that thing is yours not because you defeated anything, or because your flesh was hard and unyielding, but because you were worthy of it, worthy all along. The trials and the beast were just a way of telling the world you wanted it, and the world asking in her hard way, hard as bones and hollow mountains, if you really and truly did.” (148)
Publisher: Spectra
Publishing Date: February 24th 2009
Paperback: 384 pages

Stand Alone or series: Stand alone.

Summary: (from 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.
That quick little blurb isn’t really enough to understand exactly what this book is about so I thought I would include this interview with Valente that someone included in their Goodreads review:
“It [Palimpsest] exists on the flesh of those who visit it, in a black mark that looks something like a streetmap,” Valente said in an interview. “When you sleep with someone bearing the mark, you can enter the city in dreams—but always limited to the part of Palimpsest that your lover carries on their skin. The novel follows four people: November, Ludovico, Oleg, and Sei, from all over the world, who become infected and then obsessed with Palimpsest, as they try to discover the nature of the place, and how to emigrate there, permanently.”

November is the most prominent of the four protagonists. “She is a young woman living in a suburb of San Francisco and working as a beekeeper,” Valente said. “She has extreme social anxiety and lives as a recluse until a single night in the city leaves her with a black mark on her face. Unable to hide what has happened to her, she begins an odyssey through the decadent clockpunk city of Palimpsest and through the real world, driving the others together. In Palimpsest, she becomes involved with Casimira the matriarch of the city and the instigator of a mysterious war in whose last battles November entangles herself.”

Writing Palimpsest was the first time Valente had written a novel set largely in the real world, rather than a secondary fantasy world. “That proved to be a terrific challenge—it’s easy to make a character interesting when they are a centaur, or a pirate,” Valente said. “Harder when it’s a lonely woman grieving for her dead father. These things are commonplace in our world, and it took a lot of time and thought to make November and her compatriots as compelling as their more colorful counterparts in Palimpsest. Palimpsest is a novel of internal worlds, and even in this life, our internal worlds are never drab.”

Palimpsest’s technology is best described as clockpunk. “[Its:] political era might be called belle epoque,” Valente said. “Casimira is the foreman of a vast factory that turns out clockwork insects by the millions—they form her army and her spies. Throughout the city, half-human, half-animal war veterans roam, mute, cared for by public works projects. The city is surreal, decadent, sensual, a conglomeration of the warring dreams and passions of its inhabitants.”

Valente said that the novel was terribly personal. “It is simultaneously a story of a fantasy world and the burning desire to get there, and of lonely people trying to find connection on the edges of society,” she said. “Being a child of the internet and various subcultures, and also someone who has been often solitary in my life, I found myself writing an almost confessional novel about the places where many people can come together and create an entirely new space, a new country, sheerly out of their desire not to be alone.”

Even though you have to have sex to get into Palimpsest, the book itself is not overly erotic or gaudy with its sex scenes. The sex in this book is more of a transaction and for the most part its simple and to the point. And ironically, I think that made the sex much more real compared to some of the over the top scratching/biting/clawing/sweaty/smelly sex I always encounter in books. While over the top sex scenes have their place, there is something more authentic about the lonely private sex Valente writes about in this book.

Beyond that, I guess you could say this book is like the abandoned love child of Juliet Marillier and Simon Green’s Something from the Nightside series. I couldn’t get into Valente’s Orphan's Tales, but this book has the same lushness. So while the Nightside books kept popping in my head, the language is what makes it stand apart.

This is the kind of book that makes you want to read out loud so you can feel the velvety texture of the words on your tongue. That’s how great the writing is.

I do have to admit that by the end I was skimming over some of the Palimpsest history that precedes each chapter, but that has part to do with the fact that I read the book in one sitting (I always end up skimming when I do that). The book was also slow getting into. While the characters had me hooked right away, I was starting to get annoyed at how little I was learning about the city itself. In the end the wait was very much worth it though. Not only because it is always better to have to wait for something you want, but also because it made me feel connected to the characters more. In a lot of ways I was filled with the same questions and anticipation as they were and when each character was given a little glimmer of information I felt the same hope as they did.

I also loved the ending. For some reason I’m often let down by the endings of books. It’s like the more I love a book the less happy I am with the end. None of this is through the fault of the author (usually), but because I just don’t want to let go. This book wasn’t like that though. The ending was satisfying and just perfect in my opinion.

Notable Quotes/ Parts:

From Chapter 2:
There is a place on the interstate where the last black fingernails of Los Angeles fall away and the whole of the San Joaquin valley spreads out below the mountains, impossibly golden, checkered in green and wheat and strawberry fields and orange groves and infinitely long rows of radishes, where the land is shriven of all the sins of palm-bound, artifice-mad Southern California.

November knew that place, knew it so well that her bare foot on the gas pedal throbbed as it approached, as her little green car, heavy with produce, crested the last rise in the tangled highways of the Grapevine, and the light began to change, gratefully, from raw, livid brume to a gold like the blood of saints. Her throat caught as the great, soft fields unfolded below her, yawning, stretching all the way to San Francisco and further still, to the redwoods and Oregon, all the way up.

She had often imagined, as a girl, when her mother drove back and forth between the two great cities of the west, that I-5 went on simply forever, past Canada to the North Pole, where the center divider would be wrapped up in ice and the bridges cut out of arctic stone. Even now, charting the coast in her own right, she sometimes thought of ignoring the off-ramps and speeding up and up, to the cold stars and fox-haunted glaciers. But in the end, it was always the city of St. Francis that stopped her, and the rest of the world was lost behind a curtain of fog and gnarled red trees.

She could never escape the feeling of strange Spanish holiness that California bestowed—the cities named for saints, angels, benediction. The capital itself a sacrament. Like communion wafers she tasted the places on her tongue, the red roof tiles blood-vivid. Her own blood bisected the state, her mother, retired, warming her bones against the southern sea, her father, dead ten years, buried in the wet northern moss.

They met in the south, on a dock far out in the frothing turquoise Pacific, her young mother in rolled-up olive overalls with a great long knife in her hands, slaughtering a small blue shark she had caught by accident, trying for salmon. She was bloody to her elbows, her clothes a ruin, arterial spray across her cheek. Her father tied his little sailboat to the pier and she looked up at him over a carcass of silver and scarlet. They had both laughed.

Long before he died, November's father was gone, up north, away from his wife and the sea. They could not bear each other, in the end, and perhaps a thing begun in blood and death and salt must end that way. They could not live with less than three mountain ranges to separate them. And between them they strung their daughter, and like a shining black bead counting out refutations of love, she slowly slid back and forth, back and forth. Finally, she had settled on her father's country, and left the loud blues and golds of the south, unable to bear them herself.

She did not live in San Francisco, of course. She could not afford it. But she was drawn to it, rising up from the bay like the star of the sea, resting in a shell, all blue veils and promises of absolution. And at night it was a mass of light at the end of all those bridges, all those highways, looking east with huge black eyes.

November kept her father's grave in Benicia, holding tenuously to the town's boldly proclaimed blessings, and with the grave she tended sixteen hexagonal beehives. She had named all the queens. She kept for them pristine and intricate gardens to flavor their feet, and the honey in turn, and it was this golden science that occupied the small and guarded territory of her interior, even as she traveled the long, slow road out of the desert, her trunk full of sleeping yucca bulbs and infant jacarandas, their roots bound up in earth and linen. Even as she found herself turning from the last scrap of highway and into the interminable column of cars creeping across the great iron mass of the Bay Bridge.

How we are willing to wait, she thought, like a line of penitent adulterers at a white altar, to be allowed into the city. How we gather at this dull gray gate, knowing that the golden one is a lie. It is only there for show. The faithful know that God lives nowhere near gold. The tourists gawk at the orange cathedral, while the wise gather here, in the low and long, waiting patiently to hand over their coins and be permitted, for a moment, to look upon, but not touch, the mass of jewels and offerings in which San Francisco wallows.

November drove slowly in, and the water below her was black. She sought out Chinatown reflexively, found a shop cashiered by a spectacled biology student which sold star anise and scallions. She loved Chinatown at three in the morning—the reds and greens were muted, shadowed into black by the gaps between streetlamps. It was secret, lonely; every pink neon character seemed brave against the dark.

It took skill, a mapmaker's skill, to find an open restaurant that would not turn a lone woman away, sure that her cup of coffee and wonton soup are hardly worth the effort of clearing a table. But on that night of all nights, November needed only a half an hour's cartomancy before she found one, and the starchy benevolence of a plate full of steaming soup dumplings, braised pork, and peppered oysters.

The booth was hard, cracked vinyl the color of a Chevrolet interior left in the sun for twenty years. A television mounted in the ceiling corner flashed the news from Beijing without subtitles. Thus, her attention wandered and fell on a young woman in the next booth over sipping soup, her bright blue eyes belying Chinese features. The two women watched each other for a space, the only customers in an empty cafeŽ, until finally, the other woman placed one delicate finger against her iris and deftly slid the contact lens aside like a curtain, quirking a smile as the wrinkled lens showed black beneath.

When November tries to remember this night a year from now, she will think the woman's name was Xiaohui. She will be almost sure she can remember the ring of the name, falling into her ear like a little copper bell. She will remember that they shared dumplings, and that the woman was a Berkeley student, a historian who knew the names of every one of Mohammed's grandchildren, and could recite the drifting census data of the ancient city of Karakorum, where the Khans raised tents of scarlet.

November had only her bees. They suddenly seemed paltry to her, poor and needy.

I loved it and I’m sad I have to return it to the library. I can see why this book was voted the best new fantasy book of 2009 by amazon. It's everything you can want in a book. It’s entertaining and yet has a way of being honest in a way that you don’t expect.

Rating: 10. One of the best books I have ever read and you’re crazy if you don’t run out and get the book immediately

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