Anaximander is a character in Mordew, a fat new fantasy novel—the first of a trilogy—from Alex Pheby. Anaximander is a large and ferocious dog who has been magicked into thinking and acting like a philosopher: analysing his motivations, considering the social and ethical aspects of the situations he finds himself in, and then choosing—does he rip out the throat of the criminal holding a mysteriously sought-after scroll because his current owner, a nameless gin-wife whose bar he has splattered with blood and to whom he thus owes service, has requested it? Or does he take the scroll (which he can read) and return it to the person to whom it rightfully belongs, in whose service he instigated the bloody incident in the bar?
There is always blood in Mordew, a city built behind a massive Sea Wall that protects the inhabitants from the ocean’s ceaseless attacks, and also from the firebirds of the Mistress, a witch who maintains her city of Malarkoi across the sea. She is the implacable enemy of the Master, who lives in the Manse at the end of the Glass Road at the top of Mordew and who in turn protects the city, which he built for his own satisfaction. Other than the Master’s district, there are two other places to live in Mordew: the Merchant City, where the middle classes live and shop, and where the working classes service their needs; and the Slums, where Nathan Treeves lives, in a hovel with his mother and father.
Nathan is the protagonist in the quest novel that Mordew becomes. We follow Nathan as he works his way up from the permanent damp of the slums to clean clothes and the development of his magical power that he must learn to control. We never quite know what is truth and what might, at the time, be a lie, but we do know that violent men are to be avoided. Indeed, Mordew could be read as a fantastical version of Oliver Twist: Anaximander’s philosophical speculations are as wordy as any Victorian treatise, certainly; but, more critically, elements from that plot recur in a twisted reflection that filters out Dickens’s humanity and foregrounds an incessant parade of grotesques, scrabbling for survival in a degraded city of greed and subordination to the Master. The Dickensian mode extends to vocabulary and speech patterns, the steampunkish nineteenth-century milieu, and a decaying hierarchical society in which noone questions the ruling classes.
This is a novel about treachery and endurance. Nathan’s father is dying from lungworms, which are proliferating unstoppably inside his body. His mother receives gentlemen visitors, and on these occasions Nathan goes to what Mordew’s inhabitants call the Living Mud to see what he can scavenge from its depths to sell for money to buy medicine for his father. Nathan has a secret skill that can help him in this task, if he dares to use it. It makes him special: a Spark, activated by an Itch, that will change his surroundings. His father hasn’t let him use it, but the Spark is coming alive—and when Nathan reaches thirteen years of age, everything changes. He wades deep into the Living Mud and deliberately Sparks it, bringing forth a writhing baby made entirely of limbs. He sells the limb baby to a tanner who will use the skin for gloves, and runs home with the money. But the money is fake coin, and so his mother decides: tomorrow Nathan must go to the Master, with the other unwanted children who will all have to find their own way of surviving in this world.
The cruelty in the world of Mordew is as pervasive as its damp. There is very little love. Nathan loves his father unreservedly, and his mother a little less, and we think he is coming to love Prissy, a girl who does not want to stay in the Temple of the Athanasians where her elder sister is already a prostitute. He does not love Gam, the gang-leader of child thieves who shows Nathan how to survive in the Merchant City, but we also realise that—because there are so few people for Nathan to love—the damaged, devious Gam is his friend. Much later, Nathan learns that Bellows, the Master’s head servant, is worth loving, but that’s it. Noone else loves, or cares, for another person, unless power is part of the bargain. This creates an unrelenting burden of obligation that saturates the plot. The characters prey on each other, betray, cheat, steal, and lie to each other. They withhold information, and draw blood, a lot.
The most obvious comparison to Mordew is Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy (1946-1956). Those novels, too, are set in a mouldering world of deceit and betrayal, through which our hero moves to discover his self and his fate. Occasionally he meets a woman, but they usually betray him. Pheby’s female characters are mostly prostitutes or witches, although there is a glorious sailing vessel with a female captain and ship’s mate, and a mixed crew of friendly people. Notably, this ship does not come from Mordew or from Malarkoi: there is a part of this world where affections are not tainted with betrayal, and by god that’s a relief. Like the world of Gormenghast, Mordew grinds you down, until reading it becomes a need and a dread, a story you absolutely must finish to find out what terrible things will happen next, knowing that bad dreams will follow.
Pheby’s worldbuilding is magnificent, its scale indicated by the seductively written list of Dramatis Personae and the immense glossary at the end of the volume, which explain many of the objects, institutions and concepts of this world. We are also told that at least two of the names in the story come from French—so there is a faint, unnerving connection with our world to factor in. The Mistress of Malarkoi—with her porcupine quill hair and her vicious aggression—comes from another era, as does her daughter Dashini. They both speak in a modern idiom that crashes against the more stately syntax of Mordew, telling us that when worlds collide there will be dissonance, and damage.
Pheby’s writing has an unerring ability to knock the reader off balance, to mess with our expectations of how characters should behave and how worlds might be. The novel’s sense of scale overreaches occasionally: some of the epic scenes of murderous destruction would in any other novel be the climax, but in Mordew they are only stages in Nathan’s progress, and in their outsize proportions they can feel out of focus compared to the other, smaller, actions we see him taking.
The experience of reading Mordew denies the reader comfort, and so any scrap of humanity in the novel becomes a precious commodity in itself, to be weighed up against all the grotesquerie and violence. We long for Nathan to succeed, and grow into a good person. We may be denied this wish.