Friday, May 1, 2020

Year Of Worldbuilding in Fantasy #4: "Palimpsest" by Catherynne M Valente

#YoW Year of Worldbuilding
#WiF Worldbuilding in Fantasy


I'm focusing on worldbuilding in Fantasy as my theme for 2020 here on Supernatural Underground because—strictly in my humble opine, of course—it's one of the vital elements that holds all the different strands of the genre together.

Having kicked off the year with two influential examples from mid-twentieth century children's literature (The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe by CS Lewis and A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin), last month I switched to more contemporary and adult works with Seanan McGuire's Ghost Roads series. The series currently comprises two books, Sparrow Hill Road and The Girl In The Green Silk Gown. (Links to the previous posts appear at the end of this feature.)

Palimpsest by Catherynne M Valente

Today's post is also focusing on a more contemporary work, although not quite as recent as the Ghost Roads duology.  

Palimpsest, by Catherynne M Valente, was published in 2009 and went on to win the Lambda Award for LGBT SF/Fantasy/Horror in the same year. Palimpsest was also a finalist for the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2010, which is when I first read it--and was blown away by the richness and depth and sheer imagination of the worldbuilding. I believe I have rarely read a work of fantasy with such a strongly developed and compelling sense of place.

The Ghost Roads series is urban fantasy—and so, too, is Palimpsest, but just not in the usual way. I was going to write that it's a tale of two cities, but in fact it's a tale of many cities. In this world, we primarily canvass Tokyo and Kyoto, Los Angeles and San Francisco, New York but also Novgorod, and Rome—all in a way that evokes Italo Calvino, celebrating each one as physical space, but also as cities of myth and imagination, woven through with history, geography, and magic, all experienced through the lens of individual lives.

But the place that matters, and by extension the world we, as readers, must enter in the same way the four main characters do, is not Kyoto or San Francisco, New York or Rome, but the city of Palimpsest itself—and the novel opens, not only on that magical city, but a truly fabulous piece of worldbuilding. The language is rich and powerful, the world evoked fantastical and evocative and compelling:

"On the corner of 16th Street and Hieratica, a factory sings and sighs. Look: it's thin spires flash green, and spit long loops of white flame into the night ... Workers carry their lunches in clam shells. They  wear extraordinary uniforms: white and green scales laid one over the other, cling obscenely to the skin, glittering in the spirelight...Their eyes are piscine, third eyelid half-drawn in drowsy pleasure as they side step and gambol and spin to the rhythm of the machines."

Yep, also available as an audio book.
And that, dear readers, is only the beginning, in a story that is all about layers and loops and labyrinths of world and storytelling, all imbued with mystery as well as magic. Nonetheless, it serves to lure us into the world of Palimpsest, both city and story, as surely as Melville's "Call me Ishmael" hauls the reader into the first chapter of Moby Dick.

Nonetheless, the worldbuilding in Palimpsest is not about the cities and landscapes, both built and natural, of our world, or alternatively about Palimpsest alone. Rather, it's about the juxtaposition between the two and the crossings back and forth of characters—albeit only at night—and magic. In this sense it's as much about routes and gateways as the Ghost Roads series, although unquestionably they're very different stories. Palimpsest is what I term "portal" or "crossing-point" fantasy, chiefly because it's both "our world" urban fantasy and secondary world fantasy at the same time, with the two realms overlapping each other through the story and characters.

Palimpsest is also all about artefacts and artifice: this is a worldbuilding woven around trains and keys, artificial insects but also bees, maps and bookbinding, ink and tattoos. Yet there is more to it again: I would also describe it as a worldbuilding of sensuality and sexuality where human relationship and the diversity and nuance of sexual encounter is integral to the reader's understanding of the world—and the story that both inhabits and transcends it. In this context, I believe Catherynne M Valente writes in the tradition of Angela Carter and The Bloody Chamber.

We are often advised, as writers and in life, that "less is more." To me, though, the worldbuilding in Palimpsest is what I think of as "more is so very much moar"—and I love every word of it. In short, if you also love richness and texture, mystery and sensuality, myth and fairytale, wild imagination and the sheer fantastical in your worldbuilding and fantasy reading, then I believe Palimpsest will reward the investment of your time.


Previous Months:

February: The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe by CS Lewis
March: A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin
April: Sparrow Hill Road by Seanan McGuire


Coming Soon!

In the spirit of loving Fantasy fiction and worldbuilding in all their myriad guises, as well as bringing your the new, I'll be posting an interview with friend and fellow author, AJ Fitzwater, here on Supernatural Underground. 

We'll be discussing AJ's newly released book, The Voyages of Cinrak the Dapper. Yep, that's right folks: Lesbian. Capybara. Pirate: Also Dapper! We'll be taking you to the High Seas: what could be better. ;-)

Watch this space! 


Helen Lowe is a teller of tales and purveyor of story, chiefly by way of novels and poetry. Her first novel, Thornspell (Knopf), was published to critical praise in 2008. The second,The Heir of Night (The Wall Of Night Series, Book One) won the Gemmell Morningstar Award 2012, and the sequel, The Gathering Of The Lost, was shortlisted for the Gemmell Legend Award in 2013. Daughter Of Blood (Book Three), was published in 2016 and Helen is currently completing the final novel in the series. She posts regularly on her “…on Anything, Really” blog, monthly on the Supernatural Underground, and is also on Twitter: @helenl0we.

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