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Literature: Palimpsest
Palimpsest is a fantasy novel by Catherynne M. Valente.

Deep in the recesses of dreams, or so it seems, there lies the city of Palimpsest. It is a city of great terror and wonder, impossible beauty and unimaginable cruelty, known simply as home to its inhabitants. But for the immigrants, the people who come to the city only at night, it is a place so strange that they, outcasts in the real world, find that they finally belong.

But they cannot stay more than a night at a time. They come to the city in fours, in Quartos, folded together in spirit by an old fortune-teller so that they each feel what the other three feel when they are in the city. There are rumors that immigrants can come to the city permanently, except none of them know how, and none of the locals wish to tell them.

The novel follows one Quarto: Amaya Sei, a blue-haired, train-obsessed woman from Tokyo; November Aguilar, a Californian beekeeper who orders the world into myriad lists; Oleg Sadakov, a locksmith from New York City who hears the secret yearnings of locks and keys; and Ludovico Conti, a book binder from Rome who hears his books come to life. This is their journey to immigrate to Palimpsest.

Though whether that is a wise choice or not is left up to the reader.


Palimpsest provides examples of:

  • All Just a Dream: What the characters initially try to believe, but people around them both in the real world and in Palimpsest disabuse them of this notion.
  • Artificial Human: The Lyudmila in Palimpsest. Also there is a copy of Lucia who forgives and accepts all of Ludo's faults.
  • Blessed with Suck/Cursed with Awesome: Attitudes of people who have found Palimpsest vary. Some acknowledge that it has taken everything away from them, but believe it is worth the price. Others know that while it is supposed to be a marvel, they live in fear of it.
  • Blue and Orange Morality: Palimpsest in general seems to have an alien code of morals. Casimira horribly mutilates November, who she claims to be in love with. She claims it is because gaining Palimpsest must be worth a little suffering.
  • Book Within a Book: November is a fan of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.
  • Broken Bird: Nerezza, after the death of Radoslav.
  • Brother-Sister Incest: There's something very strange going on between Oleg and Lyudmila. It's worse when you realize this is completely in Oleg's head.
    • Xiaohui and her brother also apparently had at least one encounter as she passed the mark to him.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: The four protagonists are good at their jobs precisely because they are so obsessive. That is until they find their new obsession and stop working.
  • City of Adventure: Palimpsest has everything anybody could possibly be looking for in the way of fantastical obsessions.
  • City of Canals: Zarzaparilla Street is a milky river covered in coats that must be navigated by gondola.
  • Cool Train: All of Palimpsest's trains are alive and filled with impossible wonders.
  • Covered with Scars: November.
  • Creepy Child: Casimira's house. It has kept a room for you.
  • Culture Clash: It takes time for immigrants to learn the rules of how Palimpsest works. Things like making eye contact or speaking to the locals may be forbidden under very specific circumstances.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Our protagonists seek escapism for a reason.
    • Oleg's sister died before he was born, which has left its mark on his psyche.
    • November's parents, before her father died, couldn't even stand to be in the same city anymore, forcing her to go back and forth between them.
    • Sei's mother was mentally unstable and ultimately killed herself.
  • Dead Person Conversation: Oleg's drowned sister Lyudmila appears frequently and counsels him. She is a hallucination he has when he forgets his medication.
  • Depraved Bisexual: What some people become in order to reach Palimpsest.
  • Deus Sex Machina: Visitors can only arrive at the city by having sex with the right people.
  • Devoted to You: Ludo really only wants Lucia. If he sleeps with other people, it is only to reach Palimpsest to find her.
  • Do You Want to Copulate?: This is the sexual attitude of most immigrants. They don't care who they're sleeping with. The person is just a way to Palimpsest.
  • Down the Rabbit Hole: What's actually going on, even though the characters experience it as a dream.
  • Dream Land: Palimpsest. Casimira disagrees.
  • Driven to Suicide: Hester tried to kill herself when she couldn't be rid of Palimpsest. it didn't work.
  • Dysfunction Junction: The four main characters obviously, but pretty much everyone who is touched by Palimpsest has some issues. On one end, they become obsessed with it and can no longer deal with reality. On the other, they become so afraid of it that they will do anything to keep from seeing it.
  • The Fair Folk: The residents of Palimpsest bear a certain resemblance to them, as highlighted by November's references to The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland....
  • Fantastic Racism: Palimpsest's inhuman inhabitants tend to look down on immigrants.
  • Fantastically Indifferent: Yeah, Palimpsest is weird. Good luck getting Oleg to notice.
  • Friendly Local Chinatown: Where November meets Xiaohui in San Francisco.
  • Funny Foreigner: This is how Palimpsest's citizens view immigrants.
  • Go Mad from the Isolation: This is implied to have happened to Oleg who has no friends or family. As a child he retreated from the world because American children mocked his Russian accent.
  • Happy Marriage Charade: Lucia is so unhappy in her marriage she can hardly breathe. Ludo doesn't notice.
  • I Have Boobs, You Must Obey!: Sei tries this on a man at a train station. She finds his confusion refreshing.
  • If It's You, It's Okay: In general, Everyone Is Bi, but Ludovico has no sexual interest in men. This changes if the man can take him to Palimpsest.
  • Innocent Fanservice Girl: Lyudmila has been wearing a child-size red dress since Oleg met her as a child. She's grown now. It's a very small dress.
  • Land of One City: As far as anyone can tell, this is what Palimpsest is.
  • Leaving You to Find Myself: Lucia flees her marriage to Ludo which she says stifled everything about her true self.
  • Little Bit Beastly: Many of Palimpsest's inhabitants appear to be humans with some animal parts—a frog's head, a giraffe's neck, etc.
  • Loners Are Freaks: The four protagonists.
  • Longing for Fictionland: What drives the story.
  • Lust Object: Each protagonist has one. Not all of them are human.
  • Misunderstood Loner with a Heart of Gold: Casimira
  • Mommy Issues: Sei has very conflicted feelings toward her mother, and mother-daughter relationships in general.
  • Mother of a Thousand Young: Casimira is the "mother" of all the vermin of Palimpsest. They see everything and report back to her.
  • Narrator All Along: Palimpsest.
  • No Antagonist: Ultimately if the characters are struggling with anything, it's their own psychology. The creatures they encounter in Palimpsest actually want them to come.
  • No Medication for Me: Oleg doesn't refuse his meds so much as fail to take them as he should.
  • Obsessed Are the Listmakers: November makes lists about anything and everything, not all of them categories most people would even think of.
  • Omniscient Morality License: Casimira thinks she has one. She thought so even more strongly when she was thirteen.
  • Our Ghosts Are Different: Lyudmila. Actually a vivid hallucination.
  • Parental Abandonment: Casimira was raised by her house.
  • Polyamory: Nerezza and her two lovers.
  • Purple Prose: Fitting with the dreamlike atmosphere of the story. Even the real world portions of the text have a certain purple tint to them.
  • Rail Enthusiast: Sei.
  • Rotating Protagonist: The book switches between Sei, November, Oleg, and Ludovico, as well as switching from their normal lives to their Palimpsest adventures.
  • Sentient Cosmic Force: Palimpsest.
  • Sentient Vehicle: The train Sei follows in Palimpsest.
  • Sibling Yin-Yang: Xiaohui wants to share Palimpsest with as many people as possible. Her brother puts a lot of effort into keeping any hint of Palimpsest off public forums.
  • Single-Target Sexuality: Oleg is Lyudmila-sexual.
  • Talking in Your Dreams: Characters run into people they know on the other side frequently. In Palimpsest, people will understand you regardless of what language you speak.
  • Trapped in Another World: Once you have entered Palimpsest once, you will go there whenever you have sex, whether you want to or not.
  • The Unfettered: Casimira.
  • Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: Ludovico isn't exactly ugly, but he's certainly nobody anyone would look twice at. Lucia on the other hand is a very attractive, very sensual woman.
  • Unreliable Narrator: All of them. All four narrators are probably a little mad.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Lucia chews Ludovico out for being a terrible husband before she leaves him forever.
  • You Gotta Have Blue Hair: Casimira has green hair. Honorable mention for Sei, who actually does have blue hair, but this is a dye job.
  • Your Cheating Heart: Ludovico has an uncomfortable moment where he realizes that there are four people in the room including himself... and they've all slept with his wife.
  • Your Worst Nightmare: Hester is terrified of Palimpsest and takes a number of pills to keep from seeing it.
  • 0% Approval Rating: Palimpsest about Casimira and her immigration policy.
    • Not quite. She does have the approval of at least one person, who is perhaps the ultimate force in her pushing her immigration policy through - the land of Palimpsest itself.
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alternative title(s): Palimpsest
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