Book Review: Mordew, by Alex Pheby

It’s time to see if my hype was justified – can Alex Pheby’s dark fantasy trilogy-opener Mordew possibly live up to my lofty expectations? Read on to find out!

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GOD IS DEAD, his corpse hidden in the catacombs beneath Mordew.

In the slums of the sea-battered city a young boy called Nathan Treeves lives with his parents, eking out a meagre existence by picking treasures from the Living Mud and the half-formed, short-lived creatures it spawns. Until one day his desperate mother sells him to the mysterious Master of Mordew. 

The Master derives his magical power from feeding on the corpse of God. But Nathan, despite his fear and lowly station, has his own strength – and it is greater than the Master has ever known. Great enough to destroy everything the Master has built. If only Nathan can discover how to use it. 

So it is that the Master begins to scheme against him – and Nathan has to fight his way through the betrayals, secrets, and vendettas of the city where God was murdered, and darkness reigns… 


Before Nathan’s journey even begins, we find ourselves beguiled with promises of mysteries and wonders. We have a cast of characters, as well a list of some of the strange sights we will see as we turn the pages. The character descriptions have a wonderfully poetic, offbeat logic to them – one man was supposedly carved from a pat of rancid butter, with a personality as unpleasant as this implies, while another was apparently birthed from a forge after a horse evacuated its bowels into it. There are quirky origin stories like these behind many of the characters, displaying a huge breadth of imagination and attention to detail. Mordew feels like the perfect candidate for a full voice cast to bring such vividly drawn characters to life. But if the characters are well realised, the city itself is something else altogether.

Mordew is a place of power, and not just the magical kind. While the mysterious Master observes the city from a lofty position, Nathan is not so lucky. His story begins in the slums of Mordew, where the rain is constant and the mud ever-present. But not just any mud – this is the Living Mud, swept down from the Master’s Manse. It writhes with dead-life, and has the power to transform seemingly innocuous objects into burdensome children. At the deepest part of it, Nathan fishes for flukes, creatures spawned by its magical properties, hoping to catch some wretched creature to sell to the local tanner. But Nathan has an edge over the other children fishing in the mud – the Spark. With this magical gift, he hopes to catch enough flukes to be able to afford medicine for his father, who lies sick with lungworms in their shack, whilst Nathan’s mother entertains gentleman clients behind the curtain which divides their ramshackle home. Social inequality is rife in Mordew, with young thieves like Gam Halliday lending things a distinctly Dickensian air. Even when the scenery changes and we see how the other half live, we’re never far from a nightmarish reminder of those things that lurk just below the surface.

Speaking of which, it’s probably time we discussed God, whose corpse lies beneath Mordew, and is the source of the Master’s power. There is a wealth of explanation behind how these circumstances came about, some mentioned in the main story but much of it contained in the expansive glossary, which both elucidates and foreshadows. The detail here is nothing short of staggering, going well beyond the notion of “just” a magic system. It’s more like a kind of dark science derived from a combination of arcane and divine lore and philosophy, and it’s even more blasphemous than Pullman at his most Christian-baiting. Whilst the city might have warrens of sewers and tunnels beneath it for Nathan to scrabble through, the novel itself has some truly labyrinthine world-building underpinning it. It might seem like a fairly straightforward story at first, with its setup of the poor young protagonist coming into their power. But dig a little deeper and get further under its grimy skin, and you’ll realise just how far down its foundations go.

What really sets Mordew apart from so many other works, however, is the writing. World-building and the magic system (if it can be called that) are, as already stated, exemplary, but the prose in Mordew is so evocative that it borders on synesthetic. When Pheby writes rain, you can almost feel it pattering on your skin and drumming on your head. When it’s machinery, you’d swear you felt a rumble in the earth, perhaps heard the far-off squeak and clank of gears. There’s the magic he writes about, but then there’s the spell he weaves in the telling itself. This is literary, mature fantasy; it’s audacious and edgy, yet steeped in tradition, with a bleak and majestic beauty that’s all its own. For all the darkness and destitution of this miserable city, I didn’t want to leave it.

Mordew is published by Galley Beggar Press, and is out now. You can order your copy directly from them here, or through this affiliate link if you want to help out them, me and indie booksellers all with a couple of clicks. I’d like to say a huge thank you to Galley Beggar Press for giving me the chance to review the book, and wish Alex Pheby the best of luck with the rest of the trilogy!


6 thoughts on “Book Review: Mordew, by Alex Pheby

  1. […] With extraordinarily hallucinatory prose, Alex Pheby takes that most beloved of fantasy tropes – the chosen one – and manages to deliver one of the most memorable fantasies you’ll read this year. Young Nathan Treeves lives in the slums of Mordew with a mother forced to sell her body and a father dying of lungworms. Helping out as best he can, he wades through the Living Mud – itself a runoff from the corpse of God, who lies buried beneath Mordew – in an attempt to catch and sell malformed flukes, creatures given life by the mud’s power. After a journey to the Master’s Manse, only reachable by travelling up an enchanted glass road, Nathan falls in with a Dickensian gang of child thieves. His destiny gradually reveals itself over the course of this gloomy and gloriously gothic trilogy opener. Read the full review here. […]


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