Robyn Reviews: Mordew

mordew

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

Book Review: Mordew

“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.