“When a wheel turns it rolls across those things beneath it: stones are pushed into the mud, snail shells break, delicate flowers are crushed.”
Mordew, by Alex Pheby, uses the above words in its description of The Master of the titular city. The Master is powerful, using magic to retain control of the place he protected from the encroaching sea and now lives above. He takes unwanted boys from their families and finds uses for them in the running of the place – and in experiments. The Master is curious and ruthless. When he is offered thirteen year old Nathan Treeves, it marks the beginning of a battle for supremacy. There are consequences to unleashing powers that may be better contained.
Nathan is a boy with magical abilities that everyone he encounters wishes to use for their own selfish ends. He is told by adults not to ‘spark’, but does so anyway. Mordew is the story of what happens next.
The reading of the tale should not be rushed. There are a great many aspects to the setting, along with character interrelationships to weave together. These are not difficult but are best given due consideration.
The book is the first in a proposed fantasy fiction trilogy. There is impressive world building along with recognisable greed for wealth and influence. Nathan is a central figure with capacities beyond his comprehension that other, more informed individuals, intend to harness. The power he possesses has not been explained to him.
“Can you weigh up the wrong a man might do in doing good and match it against actions that might be taken to prevent that wrong?”
The opening section introduces the boy, a slum dweller who tries to help his family by catching creatures formed in the ‘living mud’ surrounding their decrepit home. Nathan’s father is dying of ‘lung worm’. His mother puts food on the table by selling herself to ‘gentlemen callers’. What is offered is a picture of extreme poverty, the only life young Nathan has known.
In order to buy medicine for his father, Nathan joins a gang of petty criminals. With them he ventures into the gated community of merchants. Here, he encounters a different way of living. By using his magical abilities, the gang can tackle more audacious heists than previously. They enjoy their nefarious rewards, but someone else is pulling their strings.
The second part of the book – which I found more engaging – takes Nathan into the home of The Master. Here, he lives in affluence and receives an education. There is an undercurrent of mistrust – of what The Master knows and wants from the boy. When Nathan agrees to a task The Master sets, the devastation wreaked changes him.
“like the calm rippling of fog across the surface of the sea on a cold and storm-less morning at low tide. Whatever was beneath the surface, whatever violence the underwater creatures acted out upon each other, was hidden. What does a man on the shore know of the activities of fish and crabs and coral and vents deep in the trenches of the ocean?”
It is frustrating when Nathan’s powers are curtailed due to his willingness to trust others. It is then interesting to watch what happens when he uses his spark fully. The author is leading the reader, and he does this so well.
I also enjoyed how the author deals with coincidences necessary for plot progression. When he chooses this direction, or breaks supposed rules of creative writing, it is alluded to in a sort of fourth wall narrative.
Although often dark and cheerless there is a playfulness in how the tale is written. This comes to the fore in the massive glossary provided, which the author advises be read at the end, where it is placed. Certain entries here provide additional background information and hints at what may be to come as the trilogy develops.
The book concludes with a ‘Philosophy of the Weft’ which I found rather dense to read. Even with these extras, not all questions are answered – inevitable perhaps in a three part tale. I am still pondering why Nathan’s parents raised him as they did.
There is a degree of nihilism in the overall arc. Characters act to buy themselves more time, comfort and obeisance, however damaging what they do may be. Ultimately, many actions prove personally futile due to mortality. There are, however, ghosts. And then there is God, dead in the catacombs beneath the city. The realm in which beings exist, their transience and fluidity, may yet prove to be key. I have no doubt the author introduced each creature and trait for a reason.
These layers add interest to what could have been a typical fantasy story of an unpolished child with powers who takes on an established overlord. There is enough that is new in this imaginative epic to make it well worth reading.
Mordew is published by Galley Beggar Press.