I was already a fan of Catherynne Valente thanks to The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland series and The Orphan's Tales duology, though I'll admit to being a bit taken aback on learning the premise of Palimpsest. The title refers to a city that's only accessible through dreams - but more specifically, by first sleeping with someone who's already been there. As I'm not a huge fan of erotica (at least not for its own sake), I was a little unsure what to expect from this story, but as it turns out, the sexual content makes up a very small part of the book's length.
Palimpsest is a city filled with ghostly trains, bizarre restaurants, sentient tree houses, and a population comprised of half-human, half-animal war veterans (among plenty of other wonders). It's as strange as it is beautiful, and only accessible from our world by having sex with someone that's already been there, resulting in a visitation the next time you sleep, as well as a tattoo that resembles a section of the city that can appear anywhere on your body. This has the added bonus of helping you identify others that have already been there.
There are some visitors that adore the city and its wonders, others that fear and hate what it forces them to do, and still more that grow obsessed with finding a way to stay there forever. As it happens, the first time a person visits Palimpsest, they are brought together with three other newcomers in a ritual that holds the key to permanent immigration to the city. Our quartet of protagonists each lost something important in their life: a sister, a mother, a wife, a direction, and in coming together will eventually find a way to make themselves whole once more. Up to a point, that is.
Amaya Sei is a young Japanese woman fascinated by trains and scarred by her mother's violent death. Oleg Sadakov is a Russian locksmith haunted (literally) by the ghost of his sister who died before he was even born. Italian bibliophile Ludovico Conti is obsessed with his runaway wife. November is a reclusive beekeeper who finds a new lease on life within the streets of Palimpsest - and in doing so, catches the attention of the mysterious Casimira, a woman who seems to have something to do with the veiled mentions of a war at some point in Palimpsest's past.
The book alternates (with different fonts) between chapters that take place in Palimpsest and those set in the real world. The real beauty of Valente's craft, that which separates her from many other urban fantasy writers, is that her depiction of the ordinary world is just as haunting and magical as the dreamscape of Palimpsest. Neither do her characters get overwhelmed by the machinations of her constructed world or the intricacy of her language.
If anything, the characters tend to overshadow the plot, of which there isn't much. Valente is interested in the strangeness of the city, spending pages and pages describing its landmarks and customs, but also the psychology of her main characters, exploring how they deal with the means of entering the city, their activities once they're inside it, and their attempts to find each other in the waking world. There is no real conflict or antagonist for them to overcome; instead Valente concentrates on what this quartet wants, how they plan to get it, and their relationship to Palimpsest.
Along the way there is plenty to enjoy courtesy of Valente's near-limitless imagination. Houses that are grown like trees, ghosts that are formed out of memories, trains that can procreate, moonlight that has healing qualities, frog-headed fortune tellers - the list goes on. As a fan of her work, what I found most interesting were several allusions to her other books, specifically to The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland. I'm not entirely sure of the publishing chronology (my understanding is that Circumnavigated was posted on-line long before it became a proper book), but it's quoted throughout Palimpsest and there are a few narrative parallels between the two stories - namely that the closest thing Palimpsest has to an antagonist is attempting to do the exact opposite of what the Marquess in Circumnavigated was up to.
So in short: there is no real structure to the plot. The characters are distant and somewhat unrelatable - not to each other, but perhaps to the reader. Questions are raised that never get resolved. Though Valente does not get carried away with her descriptions of Palimpsest, the fact that her trademark prose is used to describe the real world as well as the dreamscape means that the reader could potentially have some difficulty in telling them apart (presumably this is why they gave each segment different fonts). There's no real place for the reader to rest. Instead it's an ongoing assault of dense poetic-prose and strange imagery. Here's a taste:
He was proving himself worthy. This was how it was done: 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 your defeated anything, or because your flesh was hard and unyielding, but because you were worthy of it, worthy all along. The trails 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.Only occasionally does it tip into purple prose, usually in the dialogue. I can accept all sorts of elaborate descriptiveness in third-person narration, but as soon as a character starts waxing lyrically in metaphors or about their existential crisis or the colour of the fruit on the dining room table, my suspension of disbelief fails. People just don't talk like that, and it's always bugged me when stories - no matter how beautifully told - characterizes everyone as a poet.
So Palimpsest is a challenging book, a difficult book, an unusual book, but for those who enjoy what Valente has to offer - a rewarding book ... as long as you know what to expect.