Memoranda (Well-Built City Trilogy) Paperback – 7 Feb 2009
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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.
The 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.
The 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.
This whole landscape is original, and odd, and often beautiful. The form and setting of the novel provoke thought about the nature of memory. Ford also considers the nature of love, and addiction, and how a wholly evil man can still engender good. The plot is interesting enough, and fairly well resolved, but it's a minor source of pleasure. The prose is very fine, with many excellent images. I found the names of drinks and drugs especially memorable: shudder, sheer beauty, Rose's Old Sweet, Tears in The River, and more. Some of the horrific images, such as the Delicate and the Fetch, creatures Below uses to control his memories, are also very memorable. The characters are nicely realized and affecting, particularly the lost demon Misrix.
Even though this is the middle book of a trilogy, it has a self-contained story that is finished in this volume. That said, you will want to read The Physiognomy once you've read this book, and so it would probably be best to read it first, in the order published. And while the central story of this book is concluded, Cley's life story is definitely left hanging at the end, and I for one eagerly anticipate the third volume, The Beyond.
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