The Physiognomy

  • by Jeffrey Ford
  • Narrated by Christian Rummel
  • 7 hrs and 54 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

Offering a freshly imagined world of bizarre creatures and strange customs, this unique and sardonic allegory explores the power and price of science and the ambiguity of morality.
Humorless and drug addicted, physiognomist Cley is ordered by the Master of the Well-Built City to investigate a theft in a remote mining town. Well-versed in serving justice, arrogant Cley sets out to determine the identity of the thief using the pseudo-science of judging people by their features, but becomes distracted from his task by a beautiful girl from town. When the young-but-wise woman rejects him, he looses faith in his abilities, and in a drug-induced frenzy he remakes her features. The subsequent horror of what he has done, what he represents, and the shallow life he leads forces him to seek atonement and true justice, risking the Masters wrath, which may entail death by head explosion.


What the Critics Say

World Fantasy Award, Best Novel, 1998

"Ford is a gifted writer who has produced a real page-turner of a moral allegory." (Locus)
"Seriously, logically, stunningly surreal: a compact, richly textured, enthralling fantasy debut." (Kirkus Reviews)


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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

Sometimes brilliant, always bizarre

The Physiognomy, with its original ideas, setting, characters, and symbolism, is sometimes brilliant, and always bizarre (which is probably why it won the 1998 World Fantasy Award). The focus on the debunked science of physiognomy is especially appealing and the characters, though they are not likable, are fascinating, too. Physiognomist Cley ??? who computes personalities with calipers, wears formaldehyde as cologne, is addicted to drugs, and is afraid of the dark ??? is one of the most narcissistic, sarcastic, and generally nasty characters you???ll ever meet. Master Drachton Below, who developed the Well-Built City as a perfect representation of his elaborate version of the mnemonic device called The Method of Loci, and who enjoys reviving dead human bodies by fitting them with mechanical devices and neural implants, makes a great villain. I listened to Audible Frontier???s version of The Physiognomy which was read by Christian Rummel. All of the characters were expertly and entertainingly rendered by Mr. Rummell, who perfectly captured the arrogance of Cley and the malevolence of The Master.

The plot of The Physiognomy starts confidently and with purpose, but when Cley???s troubles begin to accumulate, the story dissolves into a series of bizarre, vaguely-related occurrences which feel more like one of Cley???s time-distorted hallucinations than a plot. Like the hallucinations, the imagery is excellent (e.g., the hellish symbolism of the sulfur mine), and the prose never falters, but the things that happen to Cley, and his subsequent changes in personality, feel vague, arbitrary, and unbelievable.

It???s disappointing when a book which starts so well fails to completely satisfy, but I???m not giving up on Jeffrey Ford or his Well-Built City trilogy. I loved the idea of the city based on The Method of Loci and I am hoping to learn more about it in the next book which is propitiously titled Memoranda.
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- Katherine

Recommended for China Mieville fans

A very good piece of surrealist fiction in the same vein as China Mieville's Bas-Lag series-weird and surreal, with vivid characters (likeable and hateable, and all the in-between) and the same sort of atmosphere but with a Victorian gothic underpinning instead of a steampunk sci-fi basis.

The narrator is excellent, bringing just the right level of cringy loathability to his narration by Clay without turning him into a caricature, and using subtle but significant voices and accents to differentiate speakers without becoming annoying or farcical.
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- Mackenzie S. Kooiker

Book Details

  • Release Date: 12-07-2010
  • Publisher: Audible Studios