Mordew (Mordew Trilogy book 1) by Alex Pheby (book review).

October 3, 2021 | By | Reply More

Nathan Treeves lives in Mordew, a city ruled over by a man known only as the Master, who rules from above, at the end of a long spiral road made of sparkling glass. Nathan lives at the bottom, amid the mud and mildew of the slums where the sea pounds against the walls day and night and soaks everything with spray. In this mud…this Living Mud, things wriggle and squirm into a semblance of life to be grabbed and sold to scrape a living.

Nathan has a secret power. His father made him swear never to use his Spark. With the Spark, Nathan can coax life from the mud. Life that can be sold and buy one more day of food, of medicine, of life. As his father coughs out his final days of life, Nathan must decide if he’ll risk using his untrained and unknown power or throw himself on the mercy of the Master who is always looking for boys to use in his great works.

I have never finished reading ‘Gormenghast’. It has become my literary white whale, always waiting for me on the ‘to be read’ pile. In spite of this, ‘Mordew’ reminds me of Mervyn Peake’s epic tome. Perhaps it’s the city of Mordew itself. Gormenghast is a castle that is a world and Mordew is a city that strives to be the world and almost makes it. The city is, at times, more alive than the characters within it. Spiralling from the slums to the majesty of the Master’s palace, Mordew surrounds the corpse of a god. Is this the single god that created the world or is there a pantheon missing a member?

No deities seem to be on hand to take up the mantle of power left behind. The decaying remnants of power leak out and give rise to the Living Mud that Nathan and his slum dwelling ilk harvest to live on. The dead god is revealed in the blurb but actually doesn’t come up in the novel until most of the way through. Instead it is just a very strange town ruled by the Master and the Living Mud is just a fact of life like the waves battering at the walls. ‘Mordew’ is a novel not of gods and monsters but of people and of Nathan Treeves’ coming of age story.

Nathan, as a struggling slum dweller, is used to show the divisions of class. The sparkling Glass Road allows all those at the top to push the Living Mud to the bottom. It is the slums that lie next to the sea wall and deal with the noise and the damp and the risk of the angry tides. It is the slums that are the first place the enemies of the Master will reach, insulating the rich on their heights from the mundane. Nathan’s struggle is a literal uphill climb on slick glass.

Many novels and films have the rich and privileged living literally above the poor who slave away to maintain the society like ‘The Hunger Games’, ‘Elysium’ and ‘The Time Machine’ just to name a few. What separates ‘Mordew’ from the examples here, for me, is the lack of action sequences. Even the most sensational moments of Nathan’s journey are portrayed with a sense of deep seated fatigue that is almost dispassionate despite the dramatic way the scenes unfold.

The ending was such a disappointment. The only way it could have disappointed me more is if it had all been just a dream. Or perhaps ‘it was all just a dream’ is just delayed as Mordew is book one of a trilogy, a fact I only discovered with a bit of googling once I was done. This gives us two books full of potential answers. There are many questions about how Mordew ended up as it is and how Nathan came to be there.

The stories of Nathan’s parents are sketched out with insufficient detail and, while I would like to know, I’m not sure I want to set myself up for further disappointment. If ‘Mordew’ was the epic tome of ‘Gormenghast’ and other place entangled novels (China Mieville’s ‘Perdido Street Station’ for example), I would have kept reading and found it interesting. It isn’t, though. The ending can be read as a cliff-hanger if you are aware of the existence of a trilogy but I read it without that knowledge and it was merely an end. Unsatisfying, but complete.

On paper, this book has everything. A young innocent full of inherited power but lacking in knowledge. A dark and mysterious Master atop his tower fighting with enemies far across the sea. A strange city full of magical overspill, fantastical creatures and the people that deal with them. The words are well-crafted. The world is new and full of potential. Even the paper is nice under my fingertips.

Yet, overall, I was underwhelmed. The mysteries are left so opaque that the partial revelations are abrupt out of character shifts instead of intriguing snippets that spread out into a wider expanse of plot. I hope that as a trilogy ‘Mordew’ stands more steadily but as an individual book it has too many cracks. When the series is complete I might come back to it. Maybe.

LK Richardson

October 2021

(pub: TOR, 2021. 624 page hardback. Price: $29.99 (US). ISBN: 978-1-25081-721-1. Paperback Price: £ 9.99 (UK))

check out website: www.tor.com

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Category: Books, Fantasy

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