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. Cley, the main character, is a rotten, clumsy, mean-spirited S.O.B., but he's entertaining and you root for him nevertheless. The world the author creates is vivid in a surreal sense and an inspiration to other authors. I don't know...
Published on Nov. 4 2000 by Jerry Gerold
3.0 out of 5 stars Imaginative science fantasy, but it left me feeling empty
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...
Published on Feb. 11 2002 by Michael Rawdon
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4.0 out of 5 stars Add some heart, and it would be perfect.,
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.
3.0 out of 5 stars Imaginative science fantasy, but it left me feeling empty,
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.
Moreover, arbitrary events occur at various points in the story without any reason I could see. This often lowers a scene to the level of cheap melodrama: Rather than testing his mettle, Cley sometimes is either overcome quickly and pointlessly, or saved in a deus-ex-machine fashion.
It seems that the book is meant to be a sort of allegory. Perhaps a sort of twisted Garden of Eden (there's a fruit, an Adam and an Eve, and all sorts of exiles), or perhaps a simple (if heavy-handed) story about how we tend to judge people based on superficial characteristics, and that we all will go to any ends we have to to advance our position (and, perhaps, that the 'solution' to these problems is to eliminate the need for positions in society). But none of these options feels true or sufficient. The conclusion feels devoid of purpose.
The book's strength - beyond Ford's writing style - is the mass of churning ideas and the way in which Ford expresses them. There are ample quantities of neat stuff to keep you reading, even if you don't quite figure out how they all fit together. The character names are also neat, sounding very evocative, but you're rarely quite sure of what.
The novel which The Physiognomy most reminds me of is Sean Stewart's Resurrection Man, which also painted a portrait of an intriguing world with its own rules, but which also felt like it didn't follow through on the promise of its concepts. Neither is a bad book, but both feel essentially unfinished, like they're lacking the soul to give them true strength.
3.0 out of 5 stars Mixed feelings . . .,
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. Jeffrey Ford seems in a hurry to finish the book, and its scanty 244 pages add to that impression.
During the second part of the novel, Cley endures a set of conditions that gradually change him into a man of healthier disposition. Possibly because the narrative seems so rushed, his moral metamorphosis felt awkward to me. Not unlikely, but still awkward. Or perhaps the surrealism of the world around Cley made it feel that way, I don't know. What I think is a pity is that the protagonist begins to flatten and lose complexity as a result. Oops. On the other hand, Jeffrey Ford writes up some more cool concepts, fewer than in the first part, but fortunately not as squandered.
The third act gives us Cley's return to Drachton Below's Well-Built City. Without going into particulars for the sake of spoilers, I'll just say I didn't appreciate the novel's kind-of vacuous antiscientific message, nor did I like to see Cley made into a wimp at the end. The rating goes down a notch here as far as I'm concerned, though I understand other people's views on the subject might vary.
Like I mentioned at the start of the review, The Physiognomy boasts quite a few first-class concepts -- I'll tell you of Drachton Below's pet, a clockwork-animated werewolf, just to tease your appetite. Sadly, Ford leaves a trail of undeveloped ideas behind, instead exploring those I wouldn't like to go into -- for instance, he describes an expedition to Paradise in more detail than I'd have cared to have. The bottom-line is he ended up murdering the whole thing's sense of wonder for nothing, and any author who pulls one of those without a pretty damned good reason gives me cause to lop a couple of points off the book's score.
So, when the time comes to fill your shopping cart, is this book worth picking up? I'd say yes. The Physiognomy is an original and interesting read in spite of its flaws, the mass market paperback is cheap, and the whole thing wouldn't take you more than an idle weekend afternoon to finish. Personally, I'd encourage you to give it a try. You might even like it better than I did.
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting sci-fantasy,
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.
3.0 out of 5 stars Falls short of expectations.,
For a good while it seems that Mr. Ford's only gift is that for surprisingly original juxtapositions, with virtually no substance connecting them. The novel's setting can be loosely termed as "steampunk"; the reader relishes in the well realized originality of the semi-divine Drachton Below and his toy metropolis, his perverse clockwork zombies, the outlying forests filled with all sorts of Bosch demons, and the tiny frontier villages filled with slowly calcifying miners. Unfortunately, there is little or nothing connecting this imagery, and the entire novel has an unrealistic, dream-like quality to it: Ford's sulfur mines hardly seem like such a horrible place (despite the fumes, Cley doesn't seem to develop TB, and at night he relaxes in a pleasant cottage with a monkey butler), and the bulk of his characters seem to be automata. For a while I hoped that the emerging metaphysical elements would connect into a unified whole by the end, lending the book a somewhat lasting impression. I ever built up an entire scheme of cyclicity and time loops which seems to fit the novel quite well, but, no, I was wrong: the novel ends without resolving many of the reader's questions, focusing on the prosaic matters instead.
Mr. Ford's "The Physiognomy" sorely lacks a definite mythos. It fails miserably as a novel about characters, and doesn't have enough to make it a novel about ideals.
3.0 out of 5 stars I Still Don't Know My Reaction,
By A Customer
4.0 out of 5 stars Very dark and intense, heavy with fascinating concepts,
Sent on a mission from the "Well-Built City", fashioned by Master of the Realm Drachton Below as a massive mnemonic device to contain and stimulate his memories, to the backwater mining town of Anamasobia in the Northern Territory, Cley finds he is overcome by the circumstances and the curious inhabitants of the town.
His accelerating descent forces him to the island of Doralice where he is left to suffer in the hands of the strange Corporal Matters brothers and the true ruler of Doralice, Silencio the ape.
He is eventually released and continues on his path to redemption.
I definitely read through all of this adventure with sustained interest in the fate of Cley, the almost perfect Arla, the partially roboticized Calloo and the many other bizarre and extraordinarily imaginative characters, and the amazing circumstances in which they find themselves. The book is dense with wondrous ideas and events that continue to amaze right to the end. Given that, it is strange to me that the dark forboding feeling never completely leaves one.
There is much that is curious here. As the Well-Built City is the embodiment of the mind of Master Below, so this book gives substance to the strange and wild and fascinating imagination of its author. I wonder how far his excellent prose and style can take us.
I am definitely looking forward to reading Fords continuing adventures of Cley as he gradually recovers his humanity in a world far from our human experiences.
Dark, but highly recommended.
4.0 out of 5 stars Original and fun,
Definitely not for the hard sci-fi buff, some things are never explained and it gets to be almost a bit light-hearted after the main character 'changes' - I liked him better in the beginning of the story. Didn't know there was going to be a sequel, I don't really see where he can take it from that ending but I'll probably find out.
4.0 out of 5 stars Weird and Wonderful,
By A Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars Akin to the Sci-fi authors of old,
--Jerry Gerold, Author of "The Hat Shaker's Chip"
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The Physiognomy by Jeffrey Ford (Hardcover - Dec 2002)
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