The Physiognamy and Memoranda by Jeffrey Ford.
Very odd little books. I ordered the third in the series, The Beyond, because, well, some things you just want to find out.
Plot (Complete spoilers): A complete and utter bastard, the physiognamist Cley, is sent out of the Well-Built City by the City’s Master, Drachton Below, to find out what happened to the stolen fruit of immortality. Cley loses his powers of physiognomical observation over a girl, gets them back, and accuses her of stealing the fruit. Below shows up and kills everyone in the village, who are mostly all turning into stones anyway. The girl eventually escapes with the alien Traveler who brought the fruit. The fruit, when found, is partially eaten by Drachton Below. The fruit causes mental seizures, which destroy corresponding sections of the Well-Built City, which was designed as a memory palace in Drachton’s mind before he forced slaves to build it for him. Most of the people who escape the city flee into the wilderness beyond and build a community. Drachton Below sends a half-mechanical crow, infected with a virus that puts everyone to sleep; however, Drachton has already infected himself with the same virus. Cley travels back into the ruins of the Well-Built City, fighting werewolves and demons the whole way, and, by the graces of a humanized demon, enters the mind of Drachton Below to find the cure for the disease, which has been embodied in the form of a woman, who he falls in love with and promises to rescue from Drachton’s mind. The cure also happens to be an extremely addictive, hallucinogenic drug called “sheer beauty,” and when the cure is administered to the villagers, they begin murdering each other for continued supplies.
Head spinning yet? On top of all that, Cley is addicted to sheer beauty throughout most of the two books, so you’re never really sure whether something has actually happened or not.
And yet, for all their dreamlike qualities, both books hang together well as stories. I recommend them to anyone who liked Little, Big or Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.
P.S. Out of curiosity, I checked out an actual book on physiognamy, the study of character through facial features. (In Jeffrey Ford’s book, this extends to the whole body.) I think Ford’s books have caught the true spirit of the pseudo-science: cruel, self-serving, and manipulative.