Memoranda: Original and thought-provoking

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews Jeffrey Ford The Well-Built City 1. The Physiognomy 2. MemorandaMemoranda by Jeffrey Ford

In waking from a dream, we obliterate worlds, and in calling up a memory, we return the dead to life again and again only to bring them face to face with annihilation as our attention shifts to something else.

After the destruction of the Well-Built City (detailed in The Physiognomy), Physiognomist Cley has been living in a village in the wilderness, acting as herbalist and midwife. One day a mechanical bird, obviously built by evil Master Drachton Below, arrives in the village, explodes, and releases a gas that puts many of the villagers to sleep. Cley is the only person who’s equipped to find the antidote, so the villagers supply him with an old dog and an older horse and off he goes (looking a bit like Don Quixote) to the ruins of the Well-Built City.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe City is a real-life construction of Drachton Below’s Memory Palace, which is based on the mnemonic device called the Method of Loci. Everything in the city represents something he wants to remember, but the city has been destroyed, so Master Below has started a new Memory Palace in his mind. Unfortunately, Below is now unconscious because he’s been infected with his own poisonous gas, so Cley must enter Below’s mind and search there if he wants to find the antidote. When he gets in, he finds that he’s not alone in there and that there’s more going on in the Memory Palace than mere storage of Drachton Below’s memories.

In my review of The Physiognomy, I said it was “sometimes brilliant and always bizarre” and the same holds true for Memoranda. It’s got an original and fascinating setting, interesting symbolism, and thought-provoking ideas about memory, time, love, addiction, and evil.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe villain Drachton Below doesn’t quite live up to expectations here, since he’s asleep for most of the novel, but I liked the other characters better this time. Physiognomist Cley, who used to be an arrogant bigot, is now quite pleasant. The best characters, though, are Drachton Below’s adopted demon son who wears spectacles because he thinks it makes him look smart and has eschewed raw meat for salads, and a creature called The Delicate who is similar to J.K. Rowling’s Dementors, except that he’s exceedingly polite while he sucks out your soul. This was very funny, especially as narrated by Christian Rummel whose voices had me laughing frequently.

In general, the plot of Memoranda works better than The Physiognomy’s plot (which kind of fell apart at the end). Don’t look too close, though. I sincerely doubt that it all made sense, but a tight plot is hardly the point of these books. It’s supposed to be bizarre, a little bit silly and, perhaps more than anything, ironic.

If you do audiobooks, you definitely want to read Memoranda that way. Audible Frontiers’ production is flawless and Rummel’s narration is brilliant and adds quite a bit of humor.

The Well-Built City — (1997-2001) Publisher: 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 Master’s wrath, which may entail death by head explosion.

Jeffrey Ford The Well-Built City fantasy book reviews 1. The Physiognomy, 2. Memoranda, 3. The Beyond Jeffrey Ford The Well-Built City fantasy book reviews 1. The Physiognomy, 2. Memoranda, 3. The Beyond Jeffrey Ford The Well-Built City fantasy book reviews 1. The Physiognomy, 2. Memoranda, 3. The Beyond

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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  1. Dear Kat Hopper,

    What books would you recommend for someone like me who really enjoyed reading the Well Built City trilogy?
    I would say that Memoranda is my favorite of the 3 books, especially for the part happening in the “memory palace”.
    I also liked The Beyond for the landscape in Cley’s journey.

    Thank you very much!


    • Hi fp,

      Thanks for such a cool question — this is fun to think about!

      You mentioned you like the memory palace, so I’m assuming you like the bizzareness of it, or was it that you liked thinking about how memory works? As for the landscape, was it the beauty, or the weirdness you liked? Was it the humor, the quirkiness of the characters, the ironic voice, or just the strange blending of all those things together? Do you prefer a light or dark tone?


  2. Hi Kat,

    Thank you so much for helping me!

    For the memory palace I think that the bizarreness of it is what seduced me the most, and the fact that other characters were “living” in it. I also enjoyed discovering the concept of the memory palace which was completely new to me at the time.

    Regarding the landscapes in The Beyond, it was both the beauty and the weirdness that I liked. I remember this passage in which Cley finds in a desert the skeleton of a huge animal/monster (I don’t remember exactly the passage as I read the book years ago, but it is this kind of weirdness I am talking about).
    Also, now that I am thinking about it, I guess that what seduced me the most in Cley’s journey was more the fact that he was alone most of the time, with his own thoughts. The fact that it was narrated by someone else added to the effect.

    I also liked how Cley personality evolved in the trilogy.

    As for the tone, I would say something dark, or maybe “melancholic”.

    I hope this helps. Sorry for not being more precise, my vocabulary is a little bit limited as English is not my mother tongue haha.

    Best wishes


  3. I don’t know this novel, but if you like bizarre city/landscapes, certainly China Mieville would be suitable, as would Shrek etc. by VanderMeer. And Peake’s Gormenghast of course, the grandfather of the strange city.

  4. FP, all of Kat’s suggestions are good ones. I haven’t read Ford’s series yet (but I own it! Naturally), but I love the whole Weird subgenre (including the New Weird, as they call it), so I’ll add a few more suggestions.

    Just about anything by China Mieville, but especially Perdido Street Station and The Scar

    If you like horror, Laird Barron’s short story collections, The Occultation, The Imago Sequence and The Beautiful Thing that Awaits Us All.

    Some short story collections by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer: the huge one called simply The Weird and a smaller, earlier one called The New Weird.

    Felix Gilman’s Thunderer.

    Anything by Catherynne Valente, but especially Palimpsest.

    The Etched City by K.J. Bishop.

    Steph Swainston’s series that begins with The Year of Our War.

    There’s more — lots more — but come back to us to tell us what you liked and what you didn’t, and we’ll take it from there, okay?

  5. Fabio /

    Thank you very much for all these great recommendations. I didn’t know any of the writers you listed as I am more used to read non fiction and science books.
    This will keep me occupied for a while indeed, haha!
    I will come back to you as soon as I start reading them, though it might not be before a certain time as I have other books waiting on my shelves.

    Thanks again and best wishes from France!

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