Bees and Books and Keys and Trains: Catherynne M. Valente – Palimpsest

A sexually transmitted city. Four protagonists, each hurt and broken in their own way, and a ton of gorgeous imagery, lush descriptions of an amazing city, and Valente’s trademark poetic prose. Yes, I am about to tell you again why Cat Valente is one of the best writers out there and why I love her so, so much!

by Catherynne M. Valente

Published by: Bantam, 2009
Paperback: 367 pages
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: On the corner of 16th street and Hieratica a factory sings and sighs.

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.


I have read a few reviews of this book to see how people manage to write about it, because I have no idea where to start, what to gush about and what to leave away, and generally express my feelings about Cat Valente’s writing. I also read some negative reviews and I have to say, the number one point that puts people off is the perceived lack of plot. Well… I get it. This isn’t an easy book to read. The beginning especially feels disjointed, things don’t make sense yet, the protagonists are wildly diverse and the city of Palimpsest itself is like a character you’re trying to figure out but can’t. Pair that with Valente’s prose, which I know isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and I see why people stop reading this book. But I urge you to read on!

Palimpsest is a sexually transmitted city. You sleep with someone who has been to Palimpsest and, in your dreams, you travel there yourself. The next day you have a tattoo on your body, showing part of the city map. If you want to return to Palimpsest or see more of it than the part you’ve already discovered, you have to find someone else with a city tattoo and sleep with them. And Palimpsest is just the sort of magical place, filled with spicy scents and magic, holding all your secret hopes and dreams, that you definitely want to return.


Valente shows Palimpsest through the eyes of four protagonists, each vibrantly alive in their own way, each accompanied by gorgeous imagery. My favorites were November, the beekeeper, and Oleg, the keymaker. But I also loved Sei, who is obsessed with trains, and Ludovico, whose wife left him after 9 years of marriage. While Palimpsest holds something different to attract them, their lives in the real world are just as interesting and heartbreaking. I really don’t want to give anything away, but sacrifices are made, other people from Palimpsest are sought out and there is quite a bit of passionless sex, merely a means to an end, not based on attraction or love for the other person, but based on a desperate need to get back to Palimpsest.
That said, everybody pretty much sleeps with everybody. I don’t think all the protagonists are bisexual, but to get to Palimpsest, as soon as they find somebody with a tattoo, that person is a potential sexual partner.

It may be true that, for a while, the plot doesn’t appear to progress. We learn about the city, try to figure out its layout, its past, that war people keep talking about. Meanwhile in the real world, we learn the customs between those who have travelled to Palimpsest. As will happen with groups of people, social rules are in place that our four newcomers don’t know yet. Once those things become clearer and once we learn why Palimpsest fought in a war, I promise you there is as much plot as you can want.

Palimpsest is also the origin of Valente’s wildly popular (anfairyland-palimpsest-coverd amazing!) children’s book series about September and Fairyland. In fact, November’s favorite book in Palimpsest is The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making and it has been with her throughout her life, almost like a talisman. She repeats “My dress, my sail” to herself and – having read the Fairyland series – I understand completely how that mantra helps November stay strong.

That is why you need a dress. I do not care much for fashion, but a dress is like a sail, it must be held before one, colossal and dazzling, if one is to get anywhere at all.

Valente’s prose is as beautiful as ever, lush and poetic, and unafraid of adjectives. I always hated that writing rule about too many adjectives. I like vivid descriptions, similes and metaphors! They paint pictures in my mind and make a fictional place feel real, and that’s why reading is so wonderful. But Palimpsest also holds a whole world within its pages, its own mythology, its own history, and there is always the feeling that, whatever little tidbit we learn, there is much more left unsaid. The city feels like a real place in that you can never really know all of it. Whenever a new part of the map is revealed, we see glimpses of other characters going about their daily lives, not much bothered that we are peeking in.

I could go on and on about how Sei’s love for trains makes them feel magical and beautiful, how November and Casimira and the bees were intriguing enough to support another entire book, how Oleg’s suffering got to me, and how Ludo’s love for creatures magical and strange made me excited like a child. But I couldn’t possibly say anything about these things even half as beautifully as Valente does. It’s not a fast paced book, it’s a book for discoverers, for curious people who want to learn about characters and places, and maybe recognise themselves within them.

The one thing I am always a little worried with Valente’s books is the ending. She has a track record of leaving her endings ambiguous or not really ending a book at all. And sometimes, that’s fine, but in Palimpsest I needed to know! It could have gone several ways and, in my opinion, Valente chose the perfect way to end this story.

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Damn excellent!


If you are also participating in the Read Diverse 2017 Challenge, I highly recommend this book as well as checking out the other books people have read and reviewed for the challenge. May your wishlists grow and grow. Just make sure to put a few Valentes on there too.







7 thoughts on “Bees and Books and Keys and Trains: Catherynne M. Valente – Palimpsest

  1. Sia says:

    This is one of my favourite books in the world, and your review really did it justice!

    Although now I’m dying to know what kind of book would earn a 10/10 score from you!


    • Dina says:

      Only Cat Valente, Robin Hobb, and George Orwell have managed so far. 🙂

      C.S.E. Cooney and Angela Slatter are very close. Any new book by those two ladies could be a 10/10.


      • Sia says:

        EXCELLENT taste! Cooney’s Bone Swans is one of my favourite books – it’s such a crime that so few people seem to know about it. I’m always pushing it on friends.

        Can I ask which Valente and Hobb books earned the perfect score?


        • Dina says:

          Radiance and Royal Assassin. 🙂
          I don’t know why but I have a thing for middle books in trilogies. Normally, they are the evil stepchild of the trilogy but at least with Robin Hobb’s books, the second is always my favorite.

          And yes, Bone Swans is excellent! It made me all sobby and emotional with every story. It will be a book much gifted by me.


  2. Sia says:

    I don’t seem to be able to reply to our thread, so I’ll just say it here – I’m due to reread Radiance (I’m doing a Valente reread this year, very excited for it) but I’m still on the Rain Wilds quartet re Hobbs. I have new incentive to finish it now that there’s a new Fitz-and-Fool trilogy!

    So beautiful. I think Cooney said on twitter that she’s just finished the first draft of a new novella, so fingers crossed we’ll see that soonish!


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