Review: Mordew by Alex Pheby

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 the “rules” or patterns are 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).

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.

22 Comments on “Review: Mordew by Alex Pheby”

  1. Going to rant here for a moment, please bear with me.

    Glossaries. THERE IS NO FRELLING NEED FOR GLOSSARIES in the majority of books. If there is that much information, the writer has completely failed at being concise. Contrary to popular style, a writer’s job is convey the story in a concise manner. you want to blow up the word/page count with “worldbuilding”, go for it, but don’t fill your world so full that I can’t use my imagination! And for feth’s sake, don’t forcefeed me, let me figure things out on my own.

    /end rant

    Ahhh, needed to get that out, sorry. I have not touched a recent epic fantasy book/series this whole year (I think) because of the very reasons you mention about this specific book. I feel like fantasy has been over run and that we’re never going back.

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    • Lol I just had to reply to this real quick, because it reminded me of how we were talking about Dune the other day, and how I tried the book years ago but could not get through it. Ironically, it was actually the presence of a glossary that ended in my dnf. Keep in mind I was brand new to the sff genre at the time, and having to flip back and forth every other page got so overwhelming I just plain gave up. So I 100% agree with your comment. I know you loved Dune, and I know most of the time authors who feel the need to “hold your hand” with a glossary tend to have the best intentions, but the reality is that the folks who probably need it the most are also going to be the ones with the least patience for it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • That is amusing 😀

        I remember glancing at the glossary of Dune but never using it. I don’t know if I was young enough or what, but I found all the info I needed in the text itself. Or I simply accepted what was given me 😀

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        • Exactly, these days I never bother with a glossary anymore. I typically go the “accept what’s given to me/figure out for myself” route now that I have a lot more experience with the genre. That’s why I really want to go back to Dune one of these days, I’m sure it’ll feel completely different.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. This sounds like the kind of series starter where you have to summon all of your patience to “digest” the slow world-building, but which will reward you in the following books once all the necessary information has been provided and you can finally enjoy the story without excessive baggage.
    I will remain tuned for more information on how the series proceeds, because I’m intrigued… 🙂

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  3. I’m tempted by this because of the world building, but due to lack of time and having many other books that I’d rather read, this is one I probably won’t be reading.

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  4. Wow, 100 pages of glossary in a fiction book. And I just noticed it’s over 600 pages. Not sure I’m ready to commit to a new book of that size right now (though that could change anytime). It does sound, though, like there are some intersting elements to the story, and as you said, the worldbuilding.

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  5. NGL – you had me at ‘Oppressively dark and deliciously Gothic, with shades of Oliver Twist or maybe The Lies of Locke Lamora’ – although this is a doorstopper and the pacing does give me pause.
    Lynn 😀

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