At once luxurious and disturbing, this stunning novel presents a major new fabulist whose richly textured prose brings to mind such works as Franz Kafka’s In the Penal Colony, George Orwell’s 1984, and other classics terrifying beauty.
He pries open the soul with each sweep of his calipers. For in the land of the Well-Built City, study of the body’s shape is a most exacting science. It can determine a person’s character, uncover his deepest secrets, even foretell the future. And in the hands of an expert like Physiognomist Cley, this solemn intelligence delivers perfect justice form which fortunes are claimed or lost, careers are shaped or shattered, lives are continued or cut away. A man who commands such titanic forces may ignore the dark pools of arrogance and corruption which lie closer at hand—but only for a time. Very soon, Cley will discover the truth about himself and his profession, as his world of privilege dissolves into a nightmarish odyssey, careening toward a fate not even the great physiognomist can predict.
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