The Physiognomy Hardcover – Large Print, Dec 2002
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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 the Mass Market Paperback edition.
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.See all Product Description
Top Customer Reviews
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.Read more ›
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.
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.Read more ›
Most recent customer reviews
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... Read morePublished on Aug. 20 2003 by frumiousb
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 morePublished on March 24 2001 by Alex
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 morePublished on March 19 2001
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 morePublished on March 8 2001 by Hank Schwartz
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 morePublished on Feb. 8 2001 by Amazon Customer
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 morePublished on Dec 2 2000
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 morePublished on Nov. 3 2000 by Jerry Gerold
A captivating book. Interesting and very funny lead character, although I agree with a previous reviewer that he is most interesting when wicked. Read morePublished on June 5 2000 by pullrich
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 morePublished on May 12 2000