Mordew: a city of compelling characters and dark adventures

Book review: Alex Pheby’s fantasy world is bleak and atmospheric, a neo-Victorian landscape of corruption and injustice

Alex Pheby: his many-angled narrative style in earlier novels seems to have set him up to approach invented worlds with  extravagant flair

Alex Pheby: his many-angled narrative style in earlier novels seems to have set him up to approach invented worlds with extravagant flair

Sat, Aug 15, 2020, 06:00


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Alex Pheby

Galley Beggar

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Alex Pheby’s latest work is a brave change of tack. From a formally innovative exploration of the ethics of narrating the life of Lucia Joyce in Lucia (a brilliant novel which won him the Republic of Consciousness Prize last year), Mordew is the first in a trilogy of fantasy novels.

The cover shows a dark, towering city, an impassable wall, a tiny boy (who is our protagonist Nathan) looking up into the gaze of a firebird. Mordew, the city from which the novel takes its title, is an unremittingly dark place.

Nathan lives in the slums. His father, dying of lungworm, needs medicine, and his mother is unwillingly involved in selling her body to pay for it. Other children from the slums are given to the Fetch – a grim, brutal character, “crooked and thick, like a dying oak”, who will drive them up the glass road to the Master’s house where, if chosen, their work will be compensated by a weekly shilling given to their starving families. Girls repulse the Master, and only certain boys are chosen.

In fact, Mordew is an oppressively patriarchal world, with the Master holding the city at bay from the Mistress, who has ordered the firebirds to dash themselves against the wall in a kamikaze mission to weaken its defences. The girls are shunned, and the women often forced into prostitution. The corruption of power, and the consequences of inequality, are sharply played out in the nightmarish world of the book, though there is no didacticism here.

Pheby’s form-bending eccentric style is evident here not in the narrative itself, which is largely linear, but in the provision of an extensive glossary. Here Pheby explores not only the unfamiliar terms, places and concepts of his world, but also delves into the new powers afforded to familiar things, such as tears and books.

“Books,” he writes, “being full of words to the exclusion of all else (except those with illustrations) are like little worlds and since the world is where life exists, then life exists also in books.”

Fantasy, then, might not be such a surprising development for Pheby – his playful, many-angled narrative style in earlier novels seems to have set him up to approach invented worlds with all the extravagant flair of the best writers of the genre.

Comparisons to Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast or to the worlds of Philip Pullman are not only inevitable but apt. In fact, Mordew feels invested in the neo-Victorian landscapes of Pullman; their corruption, injustice and dark magic.

The opening pages of Pheby’s novel recall the Dickens of Our Mutual Friend – down at the banks of the water, in “the Living Mud”, the slum child Nathan tries to eke out a contraband living.

The encounters with Nathan’s dying father are visceral and uncomfortable, full of conflicting guilt and tenderness. These initial chapters are immersive, tense, full of action and excitement, and Pheby’s world-building is beautifully rendered.

The intense forward motion of the narrative takes a detour after this initial ascent, and loses some of its excitement in repetition and digression, but the cast of characters is compelling and varied, and their adventures are dark, full of ghosts, cadavers and escapes down sewer pipes.

Outlaw children

When Nathan meets a crew of outlaw children, who thieve for their living (chiming another Dickensian echo), his job is to infiltrate Mordew. One of the best characters in the book (Joes) is plural, and refers to themselves as “our” and “we”, is genderless, and seems to “flicker from one to the other in the light of the fire”.

It is exciting and welcome to see this diversity in Mordew’s imagined world, especially given the recent controversies about gender caused by a certain big name in fantastical literature.

Pheby is an accomplished, skilled writer, and Mordew is an atmospheric, bleak fantasy. It is adult and sharp in its vision, and (with the addition of the two remaining novels) may well prove to be a significant addition to the genre. Few writers have the courage to make these leaps between their works, and Pheby has shown just how rewarding such risks can be.