Let’s get this out of the way first: Dickens, Hardinge, Miéville, Peake, Pullman, Swanwick. At different times along the way Mordew made me think of each of these authors. This book, this story, this world, is dark and weird. It revels in language. It toys with tropes and with the reader’s expectations. It’s a glorious trip down the rabbit hole.
It is also entirely itself.
Nathan lives in the slums of Mordew with his mother and father. His mother prostitutes herself and his father is dying, his body infested with lungworms. Nathan tries to help, earning money where he can to buy medicine for his father, and becomes caught up in Gam Halliday’s gang trying to do so. He makes friends with the one-eyed Gam, with Prissy a girl trying to escape prostitution, and with Jerky Joes, two children who occupy the same space. But Nathan has power – called the Spark – and an inheritance, and both draw him into larger games of dominance and control than perhaps a boy should be exposed to.
Pheby’s creation is massive and brimming with life. Mordew itself sits upon the body of the dead God and magic leaks out into the very mud of the place. The Master of Mordew is master by virtue of this source of magic and locked in a seemingly endless struggle with the Mistress of Malarkoi whose own city sits across the sea. Nathan becomes a part of this struggle and passes from the slums, through the Merchant City and the palace, up to the Master’s Manse. His journey spirals up through Mordew like the Glass Road does, his view and understanding of the world widening by degrees, but always just a little too late.
Isn’t this often the way? The Chosen One might learn that they are Chosen, but their training and education often remain a step behind so that the reader frets, just a little, about their potential for success. Will the Chosen One be ready in time?
I’ve never particularly minded the Chosen One trope, but this is the first time I’ve honestly questioned how much agency a Chosen One really has. Having been picked for whatever purpose, their life is now moulded around that purpose. But what about what they might want for themselves?
Nathan never once has the privilege of acting for himself it seems. He is manipulated by first one hand, then another, betrayed over and again, shaped into something very different to the boy he was. Even when he seeks to overthrow the Master it is not truly his own desire he’s enacting. Which begs the question: can you defeat someone or something using their own weapons? Or are you simply playing into their hands?
“There is a school of thought that says the reader and the hero of a story should only ever know the same things about the world. Others say that transparency in all things is essential, and no understanding in a book should be hidden or obscure, even if the protagonist doesn’t share it.”
The omniscient, occasionally snarky narrator, who is more at large in the Dramatis Personae, the Glossary (both of which are absolutely a part of the story and not to be skimmed or skipped) and a late Interlude, toys with the reader as Pheby toys with Nathan. He’s not a difficult boy to like at the beginning, but we are perhaps just a little more invested in him because we share his ignorance. As things progress we learn things Nathan does not know, we think we see the pattern of the story ahead, we are surprised by some revealments, but pat ourselves on the backs for seeing others. But just as Nathan is manipulated, so too are we.
And about that I’ll say no more.
So, did I like Mordew? Hmmm. Yes, and also a little bit no. I was cross about the gross social and sexual inequalities at work in the city of Mordew, which seem to stem from the Master’s own misogyny (he insists women disrupt magic, although we never once see evidence of this). I was deeply frustrated by Nathan’s rage and desire for revenge – motivations that I generally find upsetting unless they are paired with something more, even if that more is just lashings of dark humour. I found the first half of the story fairly slow and the second half rip-roaringly fast. These are the only things that left me … a smidge dissatisfied. And two of them are part and parcel of Pheby’s world- and character-building, so are personal quibbles at most.
For the rest, I was spellbound. This ghost-riddled, magic-bleeding, neo-Victorian city and its inhabitants can be smelled and heard and tasted and almost, almost touched. Pheby’s imagination crawls into every nook and cranny, bringing forth flukes from the Living Mud, the Master’s factotum Bellows, the talking dog Anaximander and his companion Sirius, the eyeless gill-men, the vats in the Underneath, the alifonjers, the Retrospective Odeum, and the story of Solomon Peel. This is a book that is gloriously, viciously, gleefully alive. And it leaves plenty of questions in its wake, to be answered (possibly) or turned on their heads (probably) in the next volume of this intended trilogy. I look forward to seeing where Pheby takes his story next.