Review: Mordew by Alex Pheby

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I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.

Mordew by Alex Pheby

Mogsy’s Rating (Overall): 3.5 of 5 stars

Genre: Fantasy

Series: Book 1 of Cities of the Weft

Publisher: Hardcover: Tor Books | Audiobook: Macmillan Audio (September 14, 2021)

Length: 624 pages | 18 hrs and 30 mins

Author Information: Twitter

Audiobook Narrator: Kobna Holdbrook-Smith

Oppressively dark and deliciously Gothic, with shades of Oliver Twist or maybe The Lies of Locke Lamora, Alex Pheby’s Mordew is the opener to a new epic fantasy trilogy called Cities of the Weft. In it, we follow protagonist Nathan Treeves, a 13-year-old boy living in desperate poverty in the slums of the titular city. His father is very ill, suffering from the late stages of a parasitic infection called lungworm, which is as terrible and disgusting as it sounds. His mother has resorted to selling her body just to pay for his care and for food, but it is still not enough. As a last resort, Nathan is sent to the Master of Mordew, their mysterious ruler from afar said to derive his magical powers from feeding on the corpse of a God, upon which the city is built. Children are periodically sold to him as “workers”, though not all are accepted. Nathan, having special magical abilities, is thought to be a shoo-in, but for whatever reason, the Master declines to take him.

Driven to find some other way to pay for his father’s life-saving medicine, Nathan turns to stealing, falling in with a group of street urchins to form their own little gang. Soon though, he realizes there are other more powerful, hidden forces pulling the strings behind the scenes, and now he must make a difficult choice. His whole life, Nathan has been told to keep his “spark” hidden, but when all the world’s cards are stacked against you, sometimes you just have to work with what you have.

On its surface, Mordew is the epitome of a literary fantasy novel, featuring complex and convincing characters who develop in multilayered yet natural ways. The themes of the story appear equally heavy and intricate, ostensibly carrying within them a deeper meaning or message. The norms of the fantasy genre are also followed, but not always in the ways we expect, and while there are certainly plenty of familiar tropes, there are many instances where “rules” or patterns and broken as well.

Magic also plays a prominent role in the novel, but it’s relatively less important compared to Nathan’s journey. Our protagonist is an outcast of society, downtrodden and destitute, but through pluck and sheer determination manages to make something of himself and achieve his goals. But this general description of his story arc doesn’t really do it justice either. The trajectory of his life is intersected by so many people, events, experiences that it would be impossible to cover them all in one review.

That said, all the elements that make Mordew feel so lush and rich are also those that weigh it down at times. The plot suffers from slow pacing, particularly at the beginning as you’re trying to gather your bearings and orient yourself to these strange new surroundings. The prose comes across as very dense and bloated as a result, due to the vast amounts of information to take in and process early on (not to mention, the fact that the glossary adds about 100 more pages to the end of the book should probably tell you something too).

To be fair though, world-building is absolutely phenomenal. The setting is vaguely Dickensian, characterized by Victorian era vibes as well as class disparities and the differences in living and working conditions. However, Pheby’s world is definitely more gruesome and visceral. For instance, the slums of Mordew are covered in a magical sludge called Living Mud, and in the opening pages, our young protagonist fishes from the banks something called a “limb baby”, or a mass of writhing arm-like appendages somehow manifested with his “spark”. The corpse-ridden streets and canals are a literal breeding ground for rats that feed on the rot. And of course, the less said about the symptoms of lungworm the better. Still, amidst the grotesque and the despair, there are also moments of levity in the form of playful banter between Nathan and his crew while they are attempting to pull off their daring capers, and even some talking dogs.

Ultimately, I enjoyed Mordew despite its excess. Admittedly, it’s quite rare to get a dark fantasy novel that places such an emphasis on world-building, but as much I appreciate what the author wanted to accomplish, it’s clear that he would sometimes get carried away with it. This ended up hurting the story, though thankfully, the effects are not too severe. I confess I’m still curious about the next book and where Nathan’s future will go from here, and the sequel’s definitely going on my watchlist.

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