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The Physiognomy [Large Print] [Hardcover]

Jeffrey Ford
3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)

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Book Description

December 2002 Thorndike Science Fiction
Sent from the Well-Built City to a barren mining town, physiognomist Cley is directed to find the thief who has stolen a supernatural and legendary white fruit that grew in the Earthly Paradise. By the author of Vanitas. Original."
--This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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In the Well-Built City, Cley is the perfect judge and jury, the infallible arbiter of life and death, for he is trained in the art/science of physiognomy. To the physiognomist, body shape and facial features reveal every aspect of personality, expose every secret, and even predict the future. When Drachton Below, Master of the Well-Built City, sends his premier physiognomist into the primitive outlands to uncover the thief of an unperishing fruit that may grant immortality, Cley discovers love and the truth about physiognomy. His discoveries unleash horrific destruction and plunge him into Hell--and neither he nor the Master can foresee their revolutionary fate of their world.

A New York Times Notable Book and the winner of the 1998 World Fantasy Award, The Physiognomy may be read with equal success as either fantasy or SF, but it does not much resemble the fiction of either genre. This novel's closest relatives are In the Well-Built City, Dante's Divine Comedy, Kafka's black allegories, and Caleb Carr's crime thriller The Alienist. The brilliant and sardonic Physiognomist Cley is SF/F's most entertainingly arrogant narrator since Richard Garfinkle's Celestial Matters. You won't believe that this strange, ambitious, and sui generis work is Jeffrey Ford's first novel. --Cynthia Ward --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Kirkus Reviews

Humorless, inflexible, drug-addicted physiognomist Cley is ordered by Drachton Below, Master of the Well-Built City, to investigate a theft in the remote mining town of Anamasobia. The miners of the town, while delving for blue spire--a coal-like mineral that eventually turns the miners into blue statues--have discovered in a cavern the living mummy of a strange being, the Traveler, holding a perfect white fruit (now missing) that Below believes will confer immortality. Cley pronounces the guilt or innocence of the townsfolk by studying their physiognomies, but he becomes distracted by the beautiful and knowledgeable Arla, whose father Cley suspects of having stolen the fruit. In a delusional frenzy brought about by withdrawal symptoms, Cley attempts to improve Arla's disposition by mutilating her face according to physiognomic principles--but then the Master impatiently sends in troops to slaughter the townsfolk and capture Arla, the Traveler, and the fruit; Cley is condemned to the sulphur mines. He is later pardoned, deliberately re-addicted, and brought back to the Well- Built City, where Drachton Below, having eaten the white fruit, is suffering headaches so dreadful that they're causing explosions and threatening the destruction of his empire. Can the reformed Cley defeat the mad Master and save Arla and the Traveler? Seriously, logically, stunningly surreal: a compact, richly textured, enthralling fantasy debut--even if the publishers prefer to bill it as an ``unconventional literary novel.'' -- Copyright ©1997, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Add some heart, and it would be perfect. Aug. 20 2003
Format:Mass Market Paperback
The world that Ford creates in The Physiognomy is compelling, detail-rich, and difficult to forget. I think even the most suspicious readers will be charmed by his depiction of the Well-Built City and the details like the miners who have inhaled so much dust that they turn to stone.
Unfortunately, his grip on characters isn't quite as good. While Cley is engaging on a certain level, as a reader I was ultimately unable to care about either his goodness or his badness. If Ford could have made him matter just a little bit more, then it wouldn't have felt so empty at the end.
Despite the flaws, one of the most original fantasy reads I've had in a long time.
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Format:Mass Market Paperback
The Physiognomy is a story in three acts, in which protagonist Cley shows his despicable nature, then travels through purgatory and is given the chance to redeem himself by doing right by those he had wronged. It's a simple story arc, told against a dark and surreal backdrop: The Well-Built City, crafted in the image of the mind of it's maker, the Master, Drachton Below. The territorial town of Anamasobia, inhabited by plebians whom Cley sees as almost bestial. The sulphur mines of the island of Doralice, run by twin brothers and an intelligent monkey. Not to mention Cley's vocation: Reading the nature of people by measuring the character of their faces and bodies.
Ford proves to be an able scripter, and despite its sometimes-gruesome subject matter the book is filled with dark humor, often taking the form of some character saying something totally unexpected. Cley's predicaments are often novel and challenging, and the story moves right along. Small touches fill out the story and make the whole place seem vivid and real... at first glance.
The Physiognomy's greatest weakness is that it never really gets below the surface of its story. Physiognomy is an impressive device, filled with the potential for all sorts of moral quandaries, but its use diminishes quickly and drastically after the first third of the book. The nature of the Well-Built City is never really explored, the ramifications of (essentially) living in someone's mind not really plumbed. For that matter, Cley himself is something of a cipher. We don't really know where he came from, what led him to Physiognomy, or why he stays in his position. Greed? Ambition? Fear? Devotion to the Master? All seem plausible, but none any plausible than any other.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Mixed feelings . . . Dec 3 2001
Format:Mass Market Paperback
I have mixed feelings about Jeffrey Ford's science fantasy novel The Physiognomy. While I rank it above the average, it's still frustrating to read a book with so much potential so needlessly wasted. Jeffrey Ford had great ideas for it but I didn't like the way he handled many of them. I'll let you know about my biggest gripes in a minute, so keep reading.
For this review, I split the novel into three parts. Act one is, in my humble opinion, the best chunk of the book. Here we witness as Cley, renowned physiognomist of the Well-Built City -- the urban brainchild of overlord genius Drachton Below --, is sent to the rural landscapes at the edge of the known world on a trifling mission he's not very pleased to carry out. Cley is a cruel and conceited individual, intelligent but at the same time blinded by his own knowledge and an addiction to a drug known as Sheer Beauty. With a charming personality such as this, it's no surprise he vents his frustrations on the hapless peasants, whom he rates pathetic creatures after only a quick glance at their physiognomic traits. Jeffrey Ford shows great talent for dark humour in his portrayal of Cley, but it's a pity it only lasts for the first part of the novel. Granted, Cley isn't a character you could easily identify yourself with, but I still liked him a lot at this stage. (...)
Cley is also perhaps the only truly well-developed character in The Physiognomy, while all the others seem flat by comparison. Unfortunately for him, though, things are about to change.
The story goes a bit downhill from here. Luckily not into the Forbidden Zone of Badness, but downhill nevertheless. For starters, things happen too damn fast at times, especially from the second act on.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting sci-fantasy July 12 2001
Format:Mass Market Paperback
While it's being shelved under science fiction, and while it no doubt is science fiction, The Physiognomy feels more like fantasy for most of its length. Two thirds of the novel are spent outside the dystopian Well-Built City (which itself has an interesting mix of old and new technology), setting for only the last third of the book. We don't get in touch, for those two thirds, with the technological advance of the City, and that explains the fantasy feel.
The story is interesting, though The Physiognomy feels incomplete. That's because it's part of a trilogy (the next novels are Memoranda and The Beyond). Cley, the protagonist, is a physiognomist, which is a state function- the state being under the totalitarian rule of Drachton Below, a man with a severe god complex - that combines, in a fashion, the functions of investigator and judge. Remember Judge Dredd? Cley is almost like Dredd, only he doesn't execute people. People are executed by a gas that inflates their heads until they pop. Not by the physiognomists themselves. Those only point their fingers at certain people, and find out if they're guilty of a crime by the measurements of their bodies. They can also predict the future using the same science, the Physiognomy. The Physiognomy was created by Drachton Below so...you get the picture.
At the beginning of the story, Cley is a corrupt, morally disgusting individual. He is sent by Below to investigate a crime in the 'territory'. That's the starting point in a journey of, say, self and world discovery, and soon enough Cley is one terrific guy (suspension of disbelief necessary, for sure). The Physiognomy is well done and entertaining, and very worth the read. I would have appreciated more solid world building (things are sometimes just too vague), but the novel is fast paced and interesting, with very surreal imagery (if you're into that, the book's a treat). I'll read the next two.
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Most recent customer reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Falls short of expectations.
Don't believe anyone who says that "The Physiognomy" is irresistibly entertaining. For the first seventy or so pages (a good portion of this 200-page book) I had to... Read more
Published on March 24 2001 by Alex
3.0 out of 5 stars I Still Don't Know My Reaction
I admit it. I read this book,and soared through the pages. The prose was engaging- I created a flow and you were dragged through this novel. Read more
Published on March 19 2001
4.0 out of 5 stars Very dark and intense, heavy with fascinating concepts
I found this tale about the transformation of Physiognomist First Class Cley to be dark and somewhat slow going despite the remarkable characters and ideas that abound. Read more
Published on March 8 2001 by Hank Schwartz
4.0 out of 5 stars Original and fun
If you're hoping to see a concise study of physiognomy turned into a piece of fiction, look elsewhere. This is just really original and fun. Read more
Published on Feb. 8 2001 by Shane Tiernan
4.0 out of 5 stars Weird and Wonderful
After I had finished reading this novel, I ran across it again, of all places, in a supermarket. Why on earth was it there? Read more
Published on Dec 3 2000
5.0 out of 5 stars Akin to the Sci-fi authors of old
This book is fantastic and all too short! It's weird and wonderful and it keeps you on your toes, wondering what's going to happen next. Read more
Published on Nov. 3 2000 by Jerry Gerold
4.0 out of 5 stars Vivid writing, humorous
A captivating book. Interesting and very funny lead character, although I agree with a previous reviewer that he is most interesting when wicked. Read more
Published on June 5 2000 by pullrich
2.0 out of 5 stars Great book, until...
This book has a wonderful premise. Cley has studied his whole life learning to use the complicated tools and mathematics that make a person an open (braille) book. Read more
Published on May 12 2000
4.0 out of 5 stars A Good Horror/Fantasy Novel with a Disappointing Ending
I really enjoyed this book, the tale of a destructive man, Physiognomist Cley, who goes through a tranformation and realizes the error of his ways, and then tries to help those... Read more
Published on Aug. 18 1999 by alex.duffy@anderson.ucla.edu
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