David Lindsay’s 1920 Voyage to Arcturus is a quiet classic of fantasy. The story of a man who is transported to the eponymous planet, he finds himself walking a kaleidoscope land where the sky can be purple, mountains rise and fall like the wind, and the people he meets have such esoteric thoughts he can only take stabs in reply as to their ultimate coherency. Saving his best for last, the concluding volume of Jeffrey Ford’s Well-Built City trilogy, The Beyond (2001), spins Lindsay’s story darker and weirder, tying itself back into the main ideas of the preceding two volumes, The Physiognomist and Memoranda, to create a strange, kaleidoscope voyage of its own. The Beyond as imaginative and conceptually deep as contemporary fantasy series gets these days, it confirming the trilogy’s status as among the contemporary best.
Memoranda a ninety-degree turn from The Physiognomist, looking ahead to The Beyond the reader has no hope of guessing what comes next—despite the lead-on in the final paragraphs of Memoranda. Abandoning the second dimension for the third, Cley and Misrix’s adventures in the wilds beyond the Well-Built city are mythic in mode but 100% Weird in style. With the trusty hound Wood by his side, Cley carries on his hunt for Arla, the woman fixed in his mind, while Misrix, gleaning through the rubble of the Well-Built City, attempts to reconcile the demon and human inside himself and civilization.
The Physiognomist and Memoranda are wholly engaging for the color of imagination, clarity of style, and perpetual awareness the narrative is operating along more than one degree of meaning. The Beyond may be moreso. Like Lindsay’s protagonist, Cley continually finds himself in places and situations abstract from his conception of reality but perseveres nonetheless, sticking to his goals as elusive as they become and discovering a land wholly new to his conception of possibility in the process.
The Beyond a story of finding redemption, like a Gene Wolfe novel it requires close reading and connecting the figurative dots to understand what precisely the context for the redemption is. From the tattooed tribe which never speaks to the knife-wielding wraiths, the magical seed to the fight with the ‘serpent,’ Cley’s journey is a flight through the imagination as much as it is the wilds of the Beyond. Every bit as imaginative as the preceding two volumes, if not more, the pace remains brisk and colorful, letting disappointing none of the promise of the preceding two volumes.
For readers seeking some resolution to the series as a whole, Ford delivers—with a caveat: it may require re-reading the whole trilogy. Cley’s journey certainly transformative, from what, into what, for what, and the representation of it all are dependent on the larger context. Heavily allegorical, separating what is story from what is symbol, then piecing it together into a holistic statement is to be the reader’s mode.
In the end, The Beyond is a great finish to one of fantasy’s more literary trilogies. Utilizing the power of dark, colorful imaginings to tell a story relating one man’s quest through life, the murky undertones of the series to date exude themselves in ever more shadowy form, but come to a moment of finite closure that recurses through the trilogy as a whole. Highly recommended.