Strange landscapes, thinking about and manipulating the world in inventive ways, creatures not of this world … these are just some elements which can be hallmarks of the fantasy genre. Jeffrey Ford has built a reputation on imagining stories on the border of reality and fantasy, real and surreal. One of my favorite trilogies published in the past fifteen years is his Well Built City trilogy, consisting of The Physiognomy, Memoranda, and The Beyond, which has the gravitas of fable and hints of parable and surface which covers a world of deep imagination. The series was initially published by Harper Collins’s then SF imprint, EOS books every two years, 1997, 1999, and 2001.
In the first book of the series, The Physiognomy, Ford introduces Cley, a physignomist who is the arbiter of justice and law in the Well Built City. What a physiognomist does is interpret the facial structure and body shape to determine the character of a person; their morality could be determined by their physical appearance. Basically if a person looks guilty in the Well Built City, they are guilty. Cley works for the devious Drachton Below, the master and creator of the City. Ford blurs the line between fantasy and science fiction and tells a story of unbridled imagination. As Below created the world, he created it through his thoughts and populates it with automatons and a mix of technology and magic.
Of course, Physiognomy while once thought to be an actual science, has been debunked and again thought to have merit, but in The Well-Built City, it is taken as fact. Cley is aided in his physiognomy laden judgments by a drug known as “sheer beauty”.
Drachton sends his underling out of the bounds of the city to find the thief who stole the White Apple, a fruit that can convey immortality. This Apple is sacred in many ways for not only does it convey immortality, but it does not fade. What Cley finds is more than he expected; a woman in Arla who is far beyond anything he’s seen in terms of physiognomy. He falls for her, and that coupled with his addiction to the “sheer beauty” drug turns him into a criminal. Below’s pride is his own undoing as the City crumbles from the heights at which he built it.
In Memoranda, we find Cley and the former inhabitants of the Well-Built City living an idyllic life. Drachton Below, much to their potential demise, visits and infects them with a powerful sleeping disease so it is to Cley to seek out an antidote from his former master. Cley finds a city massively transformed, overrun by monsters and strange creatures. He also finds that Below has brought forth a demon Misrix from the strange land of the Beyond Cley first visited in The Physiognomy. Drachton has adopted Misrix as his own and Cley must enter Drachton Below’s mind to discover the antidote.
In Below’s mind, Cley comes across constructs of people who seem as real as those he met outside in the “real world” he inhabits. In this small glimpse of the mind of the Well-Built City’s creator, a sense of worlds within worlds begins to seep through. Getting lost in another individual’s memory could be like being lost in another world. As the title implies, the power of memory is at the forefront of the novel. Just how long can memory sustain a thing and how long before the memory of a thing veers away from what the thing actually is?
In the final installment of the trilogy, The Beyond, Cley seeks retribution with Arla, the woman he wronged (to understate it just a bit) in The Physiognomy. Misrix joins him on this journey and seeks to gain humanity, or at least a better understanding of it. While the first two novels were told from Cley’s point of view, Ford switches to Misrix for the story’s narrator in the final volume. Misrix also gives an accounting of his own life.
Over the past decade and a half, Jeffrey Ford has gained a reputation as a powerful storyteller of the fantastic through many short stories. However, despite The Physiognomy being not quite his first novel, it was the one with which he came fully into the genre spotlight. It was and is a great book, which is why it received the World Fantasy Award. Each of these three books is rather slim, setting them apart from much of the fantasy trilogies you’ll find on bookshelves. However, the power of his story, the sweep of his imagination in The Physiognomy alone far surpasses much of the genre fiction readers have been consuming and that narrative power is on display for three such books. Ford has very few peers in modern fantastic literature and this trilogy is part of where he gained such a reputation. (I would also heartily recommend his short story collections The Fantasy Writer’s Assistant and The Empire of Ice Cream)
These novels should not be dismissed for their short length, as the three combined are smaller than many fantasy novels with which they share shelf space. The combination of literary weight and breadth of imagination on display in these three novels (frankly, all of the work I’ve read by Jeffrey Ford) is nothing short of brilliance. At the intersection of Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Horror lies The Well-Built City, enter at your own risk, but the rewards will spoil you for other fantasy, for nothing is quite like it.
Small Press Golden Gryphon reissued the trilogy in a beautiful trade-paperback format with gorgeous cover art by World Fantasy and Hugo Award winning artist John Picacio. The images of each novel link with each other to form a continuous image of fantastic, weirdness, and horror. As with the words on the pages within, the image itself is a thing of wonder. (See this previous article here at SF Signal for more details or John’s own blog posts)