I’ve been a fan of Alex Pheby’s work since I first read ‘Playthings’. His next novel, ‘Lucia’, was also excellent. When I heard he was turning his hand to fantasy I was excited – fantasy is my primary genre, and given the creativity of his literary fiction I was intrigued by what he could do with expanded horizons. The answer, it would appear, is a lot – possibly too much to form a fully coherent novel.
Mordew – a play on the French Mort Dieu, meaning God is Dead – is set in the city of Mordew, a city ruled by the mysterious Master, a man who stays in his locked palace on the top of the hill yet reigns completely unopposed. At the bottom of the hill lie the slums, coated in the filth of the Living Mud – and it is in these slums that Nathaniel Treeves, the protagonist, grows up. Nathan is different to those around him – he has a Spark, an ability which he can use to coax flukes from the Living Mud to sell to obtain medicine for his dying father. However, Nathan’s abilities only go so far, and the day comes when his mother decides she’d be better off selling him to the Master. This sets off a chain of events which shake the very foundations of the city of Mordew.
Nathaniel is a difficult protagonist to like. He’s thirteen – always a bold choice in an adult fantasy novel – and in many ways acts his age. However, his biggest crime is his complete inability to make a decision. He never seems to know what he wants, or why – partially because no-one ever explains what’s going on to him, but partially because he really doesn’t seem to have anything he wants. Characters in any genre need to have a goal – Nathan starts off with a goal, but when that goal becomes impossible, he never creates another one. Instead, he’s led around like a fool for the entire novel – which does well to show the power of those around him, but makes him very hard to root for.
The best character in the book is undoubtedly Dashini, who’s the complete opposite – strong-willed with clear goals and knowledge about what’s going on around her. Dashini lights up the novel when she appears, and in many ways would have made a much stronger protagonist.
As a regular fantasy reader, I’m very confident in my preferences – strong, character-driven fantasy with a clearly delineated and explained magic system and beautiful prose. This clearly plot-and-worldbuilding-driven fantasy was never going to be exactly my cup of tea. However, I do think the world created is fascinating. The idea of the Living Mud and flukes is intriguing, and the corpse of God – something which I don’t think the blurb should mention due to the lateness of its appearance in the novel – as a source of power is bold. I also loved the descriptors – Spark, Itching, and Scratching. There are few answers about how power works, but this is the first book in a trilogy so that isn’t really required at this stage.
The other main issue this book has, besides the apathy of the protagonist, is the pacing. The first 250-odd pages are incredibly slow and do very little to further the plot. Fortunately, the pace picks up from here and remains brisk for the rest of the novel – but, especially given the blurb, the first section is essentially spent waiting for the book to start doing what it advertises.
Overall, this is a solid novel with a very intriguing world, but one that suffers from a lack of character depth. It reads very much like a debut – possibly to be expected given that this is the author’s first foray into fantasy. Recommended for fans of darker, plot-focused fantasy and fantasy of a literary bent.
Jackie’s review of Mordew can be found here
Published by Galley Beggars
Hardback: 13th August 2020