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The Physiognomy

Jeffrey Ford

Eos / Avon

US Mass Market Paperback

ISBN 0-380-79332-6

244 Pages; $3.99

Date Reviewed: 05-14-02

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2002



Fantasy, Science Fiction, General Fiction, Horror

05-16-02, 08-29-02, 01-07-03, 03-26-03, 09-13-03

A fantasy or science fiction novel is often something of a high-wire act. Once the writer lurches out into the void, there's a need to keep the reader's eye on the rope until the end of the work is reached. There are two ways to do that. The first and most common is to make the "rope" so detailed and so familiar that it seems to be a part of the world below the rope. Thus we get GCFT's (Generic Celtic Fantasy Trilogies) and space operas, long and often turgid, as familiar as the grocery store. Lay the rope on the ground and everybody's safe and nobody has to work too hard. By far the most interesting way to get the reader across the rope is to strike up an original and compelling voice then rush headlong into the void for as long as the voice can keep speaking -- the shorter, the better. Jeffrey Ford's 'The Physiognomy' follows the latter method of fantasy writing. He writes a very unconventional science fantasy, more than a little bit polemic. His speaker is Cley as the novel begins an arrogant and successful physiognomist, who reads people's characters in the shapes of their faces and bodies. The voice is compelling and the rush of invention as Ford builds his world is fascinating. When you travel at the kinds of speed required by Ford's narrative, however, things tend to get a bit blurred.

Cley is an arrogant bastard who is about to get his comeuppance. Sent to the outer edge of the territories by the Master Drachton Below to investigate , he commits heinous acts with everlasting consequences. But readers will have little time to wrap their brains round Cley's problems, because Cley's everyday world is a wonderful creation that has lots of familiar elements put together in an original fashion. There is no connection between Cley's world and our own. Cley lives in a land of scientific magic and magical science. Ford's witty prose and verbal pyrotechnics are pretty much all there is to carry the reader of the chasm, and for the most part, they do so quite well. From character names to place descriptions, from monsters to humans, Ford whips the reader through a whirlwind of creativity. That he does so with a dark sardonic sense of humor is a bonus.

But Ford wants more than mere entertainment. He does have something to say, and he gets all the surface imagery in line to say it. You get your Garden of Eden, your forbidden fruit, three nice acts, cleanly delineated and sharply drawn. You get a look at meta-creativity, and a true city of the mind. In his sense of humor and playful prose, Ford's 'The Physigonomy' is reminiscent of Michael Marshall Smith's 'Only Forward'. If The Well-Built City doesn't remind you of The City, then you might want to re-read the Smith novel. And if you have read the Smith novel, you'll probably find yourself relatively happy with 'The Physiognomy', though it does have a much heavier dose of "fantasy" as opposed to "science fiction" elements.

Where Ford falters is in his stretches for something much more than a lighthearted 244 page dash of pure invention. He gets a bit heavy handed when he starts messing around with the arrogance of science itself, and the discovery of an anti-scientific attitude in a novel for the science fiction audience is going to upset the apple cart for some readers. And Ford does seem to skate a bit too fast at some points where it might have served him to slow down. On the other hand, there are no points in this novel where the reader feels a word is wasted. If Ford has nothing to say, his lips are sealed.

'The Physiognomy' has a whiff of Kakfa, a bow to Borges. It has dark humor, sleek prose and a unique voice. There aren't many novels out there like it even though it was written back in 1997 -- and most of those are sequels by the same author. The sequels are welcome, the prose is clean, the book is short and filled with humor. Ask yourself: how many fantasy novels are described as 'too short'? If your answer is 'Not enough!', then this is probably the fantasy novel you want to read next.