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Alex Pheby: Mordew

I must admit that I have not read much fantasy but I can recognise two distinct influences in this book, though doubtless there are many that I am missing. The first is clearly Mervyn Peake‘s Gormenghast Trilogy. As in Gormenghast, we have a completely separate world with its own rules, which is Gothic and lurid and one we can partially recognise but also one with many differences from our own world. The second influence, also an influence on Peake, is Charles Dickens. The town of Mordew is located by the sea and the living mud creeps into the dwellings of the poorer inhabitants in a very Dickensian manner. But we also have Oliver Twist and the Artful Dodger as well as the Dickensian poverty, suffering, criminals and rich versus poor.

Our hero is Nathan Treeves. He is thirteen years old at the start of the book and lives with his parents. His father is dying of lungworm disease and his mother supplements the family income as a prostitute. Unlike most families in the slums of Mordew, he is an only child. He is also womb-born. While many are womb-born, a significant number are of more mysterious provenance, who might be found in the dawn light, mewling in a corner, unexpected and unwelcome.

Nathan has a gift – the Spark. This is one of those gifts that is both a gift and a curse. One of the many treats of this book is that it has a hundred page glossary which, in itself, makes for enjoyable reading. In other words, it is not just an OED style dictionary but a novel in itself. We are warned at the beginning of the book not to delve into it too early, as it might give away the plot. I only succumbed to look up Spark. The definition is fairly long but it does say the Spark is properly the thing that animates the concepts, being to them as ink is to a written word. It seems to be some sort of power that enables Nathan to open doors and locks, and to do more, such as whacking enemies, but there is also a cost to him when he uses it. His father warns him of it (it is inherited) and more than one character in the book recognises that he has it.

As in all good Dickensian novels, there are the rich and the poor. Mordew is controlled by the Master. We learn more about him later but, initially, when we meet him, he is one of those seemingly benign peoples who is almost certainly evil. He has a sworn enemy, the Mistress of Malarkoi, who attacks the city with firebirds. It is to a great extent because of her that he is misogynistic.

Nathan’s aim at the beginning is to obtain medicine for his dying father, for which money is needed. The Circus is an area where there is deep mud and where flukes live. Flukes are eel-like creatures which can be sold for money as their skins are valuable. Nathan manages to catch one and the money is used to hire a witch to cure his father. She cannot.

For many of the inhabitants, one way to earn money is to send their boys up to the Master, taken there by the Dickensian Fetch. Certain ones are selected by the Master for certain tasks. They get fed, a warm bed and money for their families. Nathan is rejected because the Master recognises that he has the Spark. He next tries purse-snatching but is caught and then rescued by the Artful Dodger, sorry, Gam Halliday. Gam has a small gang, consisting of Prissy and Joes. Joes are actually two people but they entwined in the womb and came out as one body but two people. The gang indulge in a variety of criminal activities, not just Fagin-like pickpocketing, often at the behest of Mr Padge, a more evil Fagin. They live in an abandoned, underground gentleman’s club.

From here, we follow Nathan’s ascent. Nathan shows himself to be remarkably naive, given that many of the people he has dealings are fairly devious. Indeed, betrayal, as in any good fantasy novel, is a key part of this book. However, like any good fantasy hero, his power, combined with his essential goodness, seems that it might see him through, despite the stumbling blocks on the way. One of the key themes of this novel, as it should be, is trying to work out who really are the bad guys and who are the good guys, who is good and who is evil. Not surprisingly, there are differing views on this by the various characters. The epic struggle is between the Master and the Mistress of Malarkoi but which is the bad one and which the good one?

This could have been a fairly pedestrian story but it certainly is not. Pheby tells a really good story, full of twists and turns, the unexpected and colourful imagery. Yes, we have fairly traditional tropes, such as a talking book, a talking dog, a musty old manuscript, lots of secret passages and so on. However, much of the imagery seems to be well thought out and original. Indeed, mixing Dickensian London, both as regards the slums and the posh section, with original, fantastical scenes, characters and imagery, works very well as we recognise it, in part, and then we are thrown for a loop as a strange creature appears or an improbable (to us) event takes place. In other words, do not get too complacent when reading this book, as Pheby will surprise you.

But novels like this live or die on their story and there is no question that Pheby’s story is very imaginative, both familiar (good versus bad, rich versus poor, treachery and dirty dealings) and unexpected. I must admit that I am usually not very good at predicting where stories might be going but with this one it was more so than usual. This is apparently the first of a trilogy so though there is an ending, it presumably is not the ending and we can hope that Pheby will be taking us on further adventures in his dark world.

Publishing history

First published in 2020 by Galley Beggar Press