The Beyond is the last book in Jeffrey Ford’s WELL-BUILT CITY trilogy. This bizarre story began with The Physiognomy in which Cley, an arrogant and cruel physiognomist, is sent by the evil ruler Drachton Below on a mission to the mining town of Anamasobia. While there, Cley makes a bad decision which destroys the beautiful face of Arla, the woman he has fallen in love with. This humbles and devastates Cley (drastically changing his personality for the better) and leads to the destruction of Drachton Below’s Well-Built City.
In the second book, Memoranda, we find Cley in a new life — acting as herbalist and midwife in the village of Wenau. When Drachton Below, still living in the ruins of his Well-Built City, poisons the people of Wenau, Cley is the only person who can help, but he has to go into Below’s warped mind to find the antidote. He gets some help from Misrik, Below’s charming demon son.
In The Beyond, guilt-ridden Cley is compelled to seek forgiveness and redemption by searching for Arla, the woman whose face he ruined. To do this, he must traverse the mysterious Beyond, the huge cold wasteland that lies north of the Well-Built City. At first he sets out with Misrix and Wood, his old dog, but the northern wastes are teeming with demons and Misrix, a tame and well-educated demon, must turn back as he feels himself losing the civility and culture he’s learned. Cley and Wood go on without him while Misrix returns to the Well-Built City and uses a hallucinogen to watch their progress. Cley meets a few people and some strange creatures in the Beyond, learns that the Beyond is conscious and has plans for him, and then something weird and profound happens to Cley at the end.
Most of the plot of The Beyond consists of Misrix recounting Cley’s journey, but Misrix has his own subplot, too. He’s been alone and lonely in the decay of the Well-Built City because the people in the few surrounding villages think he and the city are evil. But when Misrix saves the life of a little girl, he makes a friend. This relationship brings him much joy and much pain.
Up to this point, Ford’s WELL-BUILT CITY trilogy has been inventive, exciting, and surreal. There’s so much to like: the pseudoscience of physiognomy, mechanical monsters, revived corpses, polite soul-sucking creatures, an academically-minded demon, a city built to be a memory palace, hallucinogenic drugs, thought-provoking ideas and plenty of symbolism and humor. I was hoping for more of the same creativity and bizarreness in The Beyond.
While I enjoyed the story, The Beyond didn’t quite meet my expectations. Much of the plot involves the mundane aspects of Cley’s journey — acquiring food and shelter, being cold, waiting for snow to thaw, etc, and these parts were sometimes dull. When Cley’s story finally gets going, much of it is so surreal that it’s hard to become engaged. There may have been some connections and symbolism that I missed, but, frankly, I just wasn’t engrossed enough to meditate on it. Misrix’s story, on the other hand, has more impact because it’s lucid, suspenseful and emotional, but it’s definitely the minor plot.
I love Jeffrey Ford’s style and imagination, and the audio version of The Beyond that I listened to was beautifully read by Christian Rummel. The Beyond wasn’t as good as its predecessors, but it was still worth my time.
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.