FORMAT: HARDCOVER (REVIEWED) | RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
The fantasy genre is one that is heavily inclined to darkness. Tropes associated with fantasy include monsters, decay and an over-all backwards-looking view of the world. This is partially why many of the more popular fantasy tales are a push against the darkness and why a lot of modern ‘gritty’ fantasy is somehow lacking in substance; stories tend to be better when they push against the established world.
Alex Pheby's Mordew however, is very much an exception. It’s a dark fantasy tale certainly, but one that owes more to the likes of Gormenghast or Rotherweird than it does A Game of Thrones. Our protagonist has the unlikely name of Nathan Treeves, but really the main character is the city of Mordew itself, a magical city that is said to be founded on the bones of something more divine. Filled with strange buildings, living mud and lungworms it’s a very ‘in your face’ magical world.
Nathan has access to a rare magical power which guides him and grants him luck, instinct and epic potential. This would normally make him the chosen one in most books. However, the main character is also a young man and has more interesting stuff to do. This is where the author’s genius shines through; that narrative has no interest in playing it straight but rather than leaning into darkness we get humour and a wonderful sort of pragmatism.
The result is less of a blend and more of a brawl of styles; a touch a Le Guin, a nod to Pratchett and more than a little bit of China Miéville all inform the narrative. This is a story that is constantly falling over itself in order to produce a more compelling story. Mordew takes the Hero’s Journey into an alleyway and gives it a very solid kicking.
The book is also crammed with notes and world-building; this means that in places it feels more like a fantasy sourcebook than an actual novel and though this structure might annoy some readers it’s becoming increasingly more common. After all, if you’re going to visit a fantasy world you should at least have a map and maybe some understanding of the culture. One to add to the winter reading shelf or stick on your Christmas wish list.