Monday, June 12, 2023

Microreview: Mordew, by Alex Pheby

A dense, richly Gothic tale full of vibes and inventiveness, but short on characterization

Cover illustration by James Nunn

Ahh, Gormenghast—such an odd duck of a book! So Gothic, so moody, so atmospheric! I’d been intrigued by its title and the pen-and-ink cover illustration for years before I finally picked it up, and I was so profoundly struck by how disagreeable it was, that--

Oh, sorry, wrong book.

Ahh, Mordew—such an odd duck of a book! So Gothic, so moody, so atmospheric! I’d been intrigued by its title and the pen-and-ink cover illustration for years before I finally picked it up, and I was so profoundly struck by how similar to Gormenghast it was—in vibes, if not in plot--that I’m still not entirely sure what I think of it.

The plot revolves around a boy named Nathan, who lives in the slums of the city of Mordew. Nathan is possessed of a particular ability called the Itch—a form of magic—that would enable him to support his sex worker mother and father dying of a lungworm infection if his parents had not forbidden him to use the Itch, no matter how dire the need. So Nathan instead offers himself to the Fetch, a type of messenger who collects boys from the slums and brings them to the house of the Master of Mordew. The Master is the undisputed magical ruler of the city, pays for boys in coin that would otherwise be entirely out of the reach of their impoverished families. In the Fetch’s carriage, Nathan runs in with Gam and Prissy, who induct him into their little band of street urchins, planning and conducting petty—and quite unpetty—crime from an underground lair. Above them, the Master conducts an undending war with his counterpart in a neighboring city, Malarkoi, and as the book unfolds Nathan becomes the center of multiple manipulative plans, as people high and low throughout the city struggle to control his power.

From the very beginning, this book leans hard into constructing a quite brilliant setting. slums are filled with a substance called Living Mud, which spontaneously creates gruesome creatures which can take a variety of shapes—wormy things, jointed eels, a conglomerations of infant limbs. If these creatures do not collapse back into mud they can be caught and sold for leather, or food, or other sources of income. Above the slums, the city of Mordew rises to a peak, with a Merchant City underneath the more aristocratic domains, all culminating in the Master’s House, which can only be reached by an enchanted glass road. The Master’s house is a city unto itself, with laundries, dungeons, experimental laboratories, forbidden wings, and hidden gardens. (Shades of Gormenghast again start to flutter at this arrangement, with the impoverished slumdwellers living beneath a mighty house that rules their lives and is a world unto itself.)

The magic of the setting is everywhere. Quite a lot of the characters in this book have abnormal origins, being birthed from Living Mud, or constructed from creatures who, if they were once naturally born, are most certainly not anymore. A talking dog, Anaxinamander, offers a very entertaining new perspective on the world in the scenes told from his point of view. The Master’s lackeys, known as gill-men, lack eyes and noses and all facial features, breathing through gills in their necks. The Master’s principle factotum, Bellows, lacks eyes, perceiving the world instead through his overgrown nose and the olfactory signals it picks up. 

(This last is presented to rather disagreeable effect sometimes. I cannot let it pass unnoted that the Master refuses to allow girls or women in his domain, and Bellows enforces this rule by repeatedly remarking how unpleasant it is to detect the scent of oestrus. Quite late in the book we learn that there may be a reason for this that is more intentional than just generalized in-world misogyny, but it is not really made perfectly clear until the glossary (pg 527—more on the glossary in a moment). And, in truth, I’m not willing to grant that the reasoning actually solves the problem. There was nothing inherent in the eventual explanation that could not equally well have been accomplished by ‘the scent of red hair is icky’ or ‘the scent of blue eyes is icky’ or ‘the scent of this particular inherited bloodline trait is icky’. Why, then, Pheby, did you feel the need to re-use ‘women are icky’ specifically for this plot point? It is so, so tiresome to run face first into this particular bit of social world-building, over and over and over again, in worlds where there is no need to import it. I promise, Pheby, if the readers are willing to accept Living Mud, they’ll be able to swallow a world in which women don’t smell gross.)

So elaborate and arcane is the setting that it cannot be fully conveyed in all its complexity within the pages of the book, and so the main text is followed by a 100-page glossary, which is its own exercise in literary craft and wit. Alongside reminders of who various characters are, or entertaining definitions of such esoterica as ‘bacon’ and ‘cat’, we also get fuller explanations of elements from the text itself—e.g., the nature of the gill-men or how Living Mud works. On top of that, we also get incredibly dense meditations on the theology and ontogeny of the world, the nature of magic and life and materiality, the warp and the weft that govern the fabric of reality across multiple realms of existence, life and death, God and godlings and demons and magic. We also get explanations of the history of this world, historical crusades and alliances against cities like Mordew and Malarkoi—those ruled by a Master or Mistress whose power originates from a source antithetical the organizers of repeated Atheistic Crusades. It’s as if Pheby could not find a way to work in all the worldbuilding he’d carried out into the text itself, and so needed to add the glossary to show that the world was not constructed just for vibes (no matter how exquisitely vibey it was), but in fact followed a deeper structure that was internally coherent.

The problem, as I see it, is that this internally coherent world-building, while brilliant, was developed to the extent that the actual characterization of the people within the world was quite thin, and their motivations and purposes seem desultory and arbitrary. Although a great deal of the narrative text encourages us to feel sympathy for the plight of the slum-dwellers and the way they are mistreated by the wealthy of the city, the author himself doesn’t seem to put his values into actions. The body count of innocent bystanders is astonishingly high, and at least one on-page genocide is set aside and quickly forgotten. 

At the individual level, too, this thinness is evident. The characters feel almost Dickensian in their grotesquery, characterized primarily by what makes them odd and unnatural, and lacking the full-fledged personalities that make characters feel like people, rather than objects to be beheld. And Nathan himself has no personality at all that I can see, not even a grotesque one. His actions in the second half of the book don’t really seem to spring from any plausible source besides a general sense of being ill-done-by—and even then, the targets of his behavior don’t line up with the people who have done ill by him. His mother is the center of a certain revelation toward the end of the book that is presented as if it is earth-shattering, but she lacks sufficient personality or even time on page to make me care much about her or what this revelation means. Even the talking dog, Anaxinamander, struggles to find a place in the plot. He is quite wonderful (characteristic line: ‘I have been charged, in the satisfaction of an obligation, with taking our life. To facilitate this please bare your throat so that I might the more easily tear it out.’). But I don’t understand his purpose in the broader story.

Perhaps these wandering, unanchored bits of plot and character will find purchase in the second book, Malarkoi. But for all the wit of the narrative voice and the richness and depth of the world-building, I don’t feel like I want to spend any more time with this story. The unfeeling callousness towards the people who have been constructed to act out the events of this book means that I do not trust Pheby to take care of me, the reader. He will be clever. He will be brilliant. But he will not be kind.


Nerd coefficient: 6, enjoyable, but the flaws are hard to ignore

Gothic, atmospheric vibes

(Excessively?) detailed and rich world-building

Grotesqueries as characters, with a lack of kindness or sympathy in their portrayal

Unfortunately unnecessary misogyny

CLARA COHEN lives in Scotland in a creaky old building with pipes for gas lighting still lurking under her floorboards. She is an experimental linguist by profession, and calligrapher and Islamic geometric artist by vocation. During figure skating season she does blather on a bit about figure skating. She is on mastodon at

Reference: Mordew, Alex Pheby, [Galley Beggar Press, 2020].