Tag Archives: WFA winner

THE PHYSIOGNOMY – Jeffrey Ford (1997)

the-physiognomyThe Physiognomy is the first book of The Well-Built City trilogy, and all three books supposedly make up one big novel. I won’t be reading book two and three, as The Physiognomy failed to connect with me. I am not saying this is a bad book, I am just saying it wasn’t my cup of tea. As it won the World Fantasy Award – not an award with a bad track record, with winners as diverse as Clarke, Le Guin, Miéville, Kay, Priest, Powers, Wolfe – I’m sure there’s an audience for it.

I’ve devised a quick litmus test to see if you’re part of that audience. Consider these two sentences:

I stared at some of the titles on the shelves and before long found four of my twenty or more published treatises. I was sure he hadn’t read Miscreants and Morons – A Philosophical Solution, since he had not yet committed suicide.

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THE CITY & THE CITY – China Miéville (2009)

The City & The CityI enjoyed The City & The City a lot. It was only the second book I’ve read by China Miéville. My first was Embassytown, and while that was fun, it was very flawed too. So, my expectations for Miéville’s most hyped book weren’t exactly high, and to make things worse, reading the comparisons to Kafka on the back put my inner-cynic on high alert. Still, it won 6 awards, and its premise really piqued my interest.

First things first, this is not really ‘fantasy’ fantasy. And for sure it’s not science fiction either. Some label this book as near-future, but it is most definitely not. The City & The City is simply speculative fiction. The novel is set in the timeframe of its publication: the very beginning of the 21st century, on our very own planet Earth, in a fictional Eastern European city that is a kind of double city. Two cities exist in and on the space of one, interweaving, but separate – Iron Curtain kind of separate. This is not to be taken as something magical, metaphysical, hallucinatory or fantastical. Both Besźel and Ul Quma are very, very real. While there is a sense of wonder for the reader, discovering both cities’ interwoven workings, it is all perfectly possible & explainable. It’s not New Weird fiction either – a genre tagged to some of Miéville’s other novels. There’s actually nothing impossibly weird about this double city, other than that it doesn’t exist in our reality. It could exist though, and that fact is one of the strengths of the book.

Something else it is not, is Kafka (*). It starts Kafkaesque though, and Miéville explicitly acknowledges Franz Kafka’s influence in the preface. But, as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that the political, bureaucratic stuff is more part of the setting, rather than one of the themes. Another crucial difference with Kafka is that The City & The City isn’t an existential book. Continue reading

JONATHAN STRANGE & MR. NORRELL – Susanna Clarke (2004)

Jonathan Strange And Mr. NorrellJonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a long book that takes its time to set everything up. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that has slower character development – except for books that don’t have any character development at all.

In the first half especially, this massive tome reads more like a collection of anecdotes, short stories and miniatures about magic, folklore and society, which are nearly all interesting, well-crafted, oddly poetic and at times charmingly witty.

The actual story only takes off after about 400 pages (in my pocket edition of 1000 pages). It took me quite some time to reach that mark. I considered giving up around page 300, since not that much was happening, but kept on reading because Clarke’s language and descriptions have an eerie yet funny character that retained a sense of promise about the story itself. 100 pages later, I was fully gripped.

The inventive use of footnotes and the freshness of the enthusiastic narrative voice add to the pleasure this novel provides. The entire book, which has been rightly dubbed a comedy of manners too, has a reflective, ironical vibe, and as such it is very, very English – for lack of a better word.

Lots has been written about this acclaimed book, and I don’t have much to add. Let me suffice with saying that it is utterly original, and a genuine feast of the imagination.

This comes with the highest possible recommendation – if you are willing to invest the time.


UPDATE: Here’s a link to my review of the lesser known The Ladies Of Grace Adieu, Clarke’s 2006 collection of short stories, most of which are set in the same faerie England.

 

originally written on  the 13th of September, 2015