Jeffrey Ford

Roc Books / 266 pages / 1 August 1998

ISBN: 0380793326

In the world of The Physiognomy, power doesn’t corrupt, the corrupt are drawn to power. Naturally, the promise of absolute power holds an irresistible allure for the absolutely corrupt. The seat of the power in this unknown land is the Well-Built City, brainchild and empire of the Master. And the Master maintains control over the City and its people as arbiter of the Physiognomy, law of the land.

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Justice and injustice are meted out in almost equal allotments based on the inarguable numbers of the Physiognomy. A citizen is calibrated and filed away in the appropriate slot according to the length of a lip or the distance between eyebrows. Something as subjective as the stoop of the shoulders can consign a person to a life of poverty and drudgery. The unforgivable sin of narrow nostrils is enough to convict.

Conviction, by the way, of virtually every crime is punished by death.

Phsiognomist First Class Cley is the Master’s prize pupil and hatchetman. An enviable position to be in — if he can hold on to it. If he lives long enough to enjoy the benefits.

That won’t be easy, because the Master’s regime, like the legal system it commands, is riddled with corruption and sinking fast. As it sinks, the Master will climb on anyone to remain at the top.

These are the shadows that follow Cley on his assignment to Anamasobia to investigate the theft of a sacred object. If he could see through the haze of his own conceit, the Physiognomy, and the habit that has him in an untiring grip, he would bribe the coachman to keep going, as fast and as far as possible.

Where and when is this world Ford has created? The amalgam of dress modes, sciences, customs, and industry, places the novel in no certain time and at no certain locale. It may be an alternate Earth, an alternate universe, or another planet entirely; it is Ford’s own unique creation.

Taken on the surface level only, this is a dark and oppressive setting. Look closer. I said, closer. Ford slides in a variety of dark jokes, subtle insiders that you might miss just skimming through. Cley himself, surely one of the most unsympathetic characters to surface in some time, manages a few droll comments, whether he is aware of it or not. Keep an eye open for them, the injections of humour are a welcome respite in a somewhat Victorian landscape.

The Physiognomy is a slim volume, but accomplishes much in less than 250 pages. It takes us to a world where insanity seems the most common condition and where faith is placed in the most tenuous of beliefs. It displays the evil that men do and the chances they have for redemption. Too bad so few take the opportunity.