Completed 7/12/2022, Reviewed 7/13/2022
I didn’t like this book for about the first half. I was sure I was going to give it two stars. Then something happened and I got completely caught up in it and couldn’t wait to see how it would end. The main character is not likeable for a long time. The prose is dense. The world-building was bizarre. But it all came together into a couldn’t-put-it-down experience. This book is described as Kafkaesque, which often translates to depressing and not understandable, but here, it was more of the oppressive and nightmarish quality of a Kafka story. This certainly isn’t a good time read. But it has depth and weight. This book won the World Fantasy Award for 1998.
Physiognomy is the divination of a person’s character through the measurement of their face and/or body. Cley is a physiognomist. He lives in a city that was built out of the powerful imagination of its ruler, Drachton Below. Below uses Cley to measure people to figure out who committed a crime or perhaps is plotting against him. The people hate Cley and Cley generally hates people. He’s glad to see them executed by filling their heads with inert gas until it explodes. Then Below sends him to the rural hinterlands on what seems a simple mission. However, Cley falls for the charms of a woman who has perfect facial measurements and soon his whole sense of self, profession, and universe changes, leaving him at the mercy of the spiteful Below.
Cley is a misanthrope and oblivious to the suffering around him. He believes so much in his profession that people with bad measurements deserve to die or be surgically made better proportioned. It made the first half of the book nearly excruciating to read. The only thing that kept me going was the promise of metanoia in the book’s blurb. It does come and I was able to feel empathy for him. But it’s not a fairy tale ending. Despite his complete change of heart, he still has to suffer the consequences for his previous actions. That made the character and the story very believable.
Drachton Below is maniacal genius. He is not a likeable character and despite suffering from his actions, doesn’t repent. He remains demonic. Once Cley has his redemptive experience it’s easier to see Below as the bad guy. There are also some secondary characters, like Arla with whom Cley falls in love. She’s a good person, but remains cold and distant and suffers from the early actions of Cley. Despite this, she’s the one spark of hope in the first half of the book.
The world building is definitely bizarre. The city is completely designed by Below in his genius imagination. He builds it out of grit and manipulation. It survives because of his oppressive control over the citizens by the use of physiognomy. It doesn’t really make sense at first, but does come together as the story progresses. I have to hand it to the author. He really came up with a remarkable, imaginative world. This story is unlike anything I’ve read in a long time.
I give this book four stars out of five. But it is not a pleasure read. It’s a brilliantly envisioned world with unique characters and a surprising plot. It just takes time to get into this dark, dark fantasy. If you can get through the first half, the rest will be your reward.