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Literature / Palimpsest

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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.
  • Animal Motifs: Nerezza is constantly given similarities to an eel.
  • Artificial Human: The Lyudmila in Palimpsest. Also there is a copy of Lucia who forgives and accepts all of Ludo's faults. Ludovico calls them "Pescia", named after the copies of manuscripts monks would copy.
  • Blessed with Suck: 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.
  • Body Horror: November ends up with two of her fingers cut off and bee stings over her face in order to obtain information of her own Quarto.
    • Ludovico has his tongue cut off near the end of the book.
  • Book Within a Book: November is a fan of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making... or rather only the first book of said series.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Deconstruction Archetype: Casimira is essentially a twisted version of a usual Disney Princess. Instead of a Friend to All Living Things, she runs a factory that creates vermin. She wishes to change the status quo and thus goes to war against citizens of Palimpsest who'd rather not open themselves up to immigrants and weaponizes the vermin she creates. She feels like she has the right to do whatever she wants because she's got Palimpsest backing her up.
  • 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 who bear tattoos that resemble maps of Palimpsest.
  • 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.
  • Driven to Suicide:
    • Hester tried to kill herself when she couldn't be rid of Palimpsest. it didn't work.
    • This is what ultimately happened to Sei's mother.
  • 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.
  • Enfant Terrible: Yumiko fell pregnant after acquiring her Palimpsest tattoo. When her son was born, he was covered in tattooed streets - and not Palimpsest, either, but someplace else, aligned on a grid. And minutes after birth, he looked straight at his mother and said "I want to go back." She had a freak out and gave him up to a couple. In short, according to Yumiko, tattoo-bearers don't have children — Palimpsest is having children.
  • Equivalent Exchange: How payments in Palimpsest work: a finger nail can give you a train primer, a random list can give you a fancy dress, Ludovico gives up his tongue so Ululiro can be given some semblance of victory.
  • Everyone Is Bi: The characters we follow have little to no compunction about taking men and women for lovers. This trope is dear to Valente's heart, reflecting her own bisexuality.
  • 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 in a Ship of Her Own Making.
  • Fantastic Racism: Palimpsest's inhuman inhabitants tend to look down on immigrants.
  • Fantastically Indifferent: Yeah, Palimpsest is weird. Good luck getting Oleg to notice.
  • Freudian Excuse: Sei has very conflicted feelings toward her mother, and mother-daughter relationships in general.
  • 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.
  • Headdesk: Oleg does this on a boat when he realizes that the Lyudmila with him is just a construct.
  • I Have Boobs, You Must Obey!: Sei tries this on a man at a train station - showing her boobs and her Palimpsest tattoo at the same time. 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.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall:
    "There are some theories. You know, no one really knows. It's not like there's a manual. A couple of times, I heard that someone wanted to write one, publish it as fiction — but we would know. We would see right through all those made-up characters and silly little narrative twists. We would know what it was: a primer."
  • 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. This is due to them taking a surgery to fight in a war against Casimira's own army of vermin.
  • 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. The closest to a Big Bad is Nerezza, hoping to kill Ludovico because she can't stand the idea of him meeting up with his Quarto to immigrate for good while she will never be able to (because her final Quarto member was killed) and Ululiro, a veteran of the war who despises immigrants and teamed up with Nerezza.
  • 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.
  • Our Ghosts Are Different: Lyudmila. Actually a vivid hallucination caused when Oleg refuses his meds.
  • Parental Abandonment: Casimira was raised by her house.
  • Polyamory: Nerezza and her two lovers. Justified because without the last member of their Quartro they can't possibly immigrate to Palimpsest for good and this is as close as they can get.
  • 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 loves the trains of Japan — not just where they can take her, but the mystery and beauty of the trains themselves. Her normal job is working a ticket kiosk.
  • Rotating Protagonist: The book switches between Sei, November, Oleg, and Ludovico, as well as switching from their normal lives to their Palimpsest adventures.
  • 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 and will only have sex with others if it'll make him see her again.
  • 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.
  • Tarot Motifs: A tarot reading is drawn for the protagonists early in the story.
  • Threatening Shark: Ululiro has a shark's head and she's willing to do anything to prevent people from immigrating into Palimpsest.
  • Trapped in Another World: Once you have entered Palimpsest once, you will go there whenever you have sex, whether you want to or not.
  • 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.
  • Your Worst Nightmare: Hester is terrified of Palimpsest and takes a number of pills to keep from seeing it.