Nowadays, bookshop shelves groan under the hefty weight of fantasy novels. They are often large, over four hundred pages, with striking covers and dramatic titles, following a typical format of: The [noun] of the [noun]. Readers are inundated with medieval societies, spattered with magic, violence and destiny, the majority of which with a very unsubtle Celtic nod.
The sheer volume of these books saturates the fantasy market and it can be difficult to find innovative, original world building, and then Mordew by Alex Pheby came along.
What initially excited me about this book were two things: the cover, a dark and dynamic etching, and the fact that it was published by Galley Beggar Press.
Mordew is a fantastical city built on the corpse of God. It is protected by an enormous seawall, which the infamous firebirds throw their bodies against in between gargantuan waves. The city is spliced by spiralling stone walls, segregating its citizens by class, and ruled by the imposing silhouette of the Master, who derives his magical powers from the buried deity.
A young boy called Nathan Treeves lives in the lowest tier of the city, in the slums shoulder to shoulder with the Living Mud, which spawns and spews out half-formed creatures into the impoverished streets. His life is meagre and desperate and thrown upside down the day his mother sells him to their mysterious Master.
But Nathan is not ordinary. He has the Spark, a magic that swells and bursts out of him, and the reader accompanies him as he discovers just powerful he really is.
It opens with a Dramatis Personae, which includes but is not limited to:
- Anaximander – a talking dog, trained for violence, but with refined sensibilities”
- Gam Halliday – a self-made boy. Out of the Mud he gathered what parts came to hand until a child like a bird’s nest was there, made from twigs and leavings stuck together against the wind with spit
- Jerky Joes – two children in one, they are part of Gam Halliday’s criminal gang
- Prissy – a slum girl and part of Gam Halliday’s gang. When a song is sung it can be very affecting, but when its notes echo in the slums of Mordew, inevitably some beauty is lost
The story is extraordinary. Pheby doesn’t shy away from the darkness that many children face in our world – forced labour, trafficking, poverty and abuse – and exposes it with a rawness that is disturbingly close to home. Pheby tells the reader this from the outset, warning them of what to expect:
The story is both immense and confined, foreign but reflective, and this dichotomy is pleasing. It’s like the feeing you get when you see little people doing big things. RGB sitting on the Supreme Court, the statue of the Fearless Girl, Frodo standing before the flames of Mount Doom. It is a common fantasy trope, but executed with delicacy.
While there are talking dogs, malicious Fagan-like figures and malevolent lung worms, a Machiavellian yet endearing troupe of children is at the heart of this novel. Nathan is sincere but crotchety, Gam Halliday is part-unscrupulous criminal, part-Artful Dodger, and Prissy, the female lead, is as brassy as she is vulnerable. An author who can write children with such dexterity, and without condescension, is a rare thing.
This is a fantasy novel which was truly one of the best in the genre I have read in a long time. It was daring and original, but also full of everything you expect from a strong fantasy – skilfully written storytelling and compelling characters.
It was also expertly published, with beautiful and curious illustrations, bookmarks and online quizzes that came with it. It is an exceptional project, pulled off with considerable care and style.
Mordew by Alex Pheby (Galley Beggar Press, 2020)
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Top image credit: Rebecca Gilroy