Mordew by Alex Pheby
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I readily confess that I am not a lover of the fantasy genre. Therefore, when I received my copy of the book, it languished in the old TBR pile for a considerable period of time. Even the fact that many of the reviewers used the descriptor ‘Dickensian’ in their reviews was not enough for me to extract it from the pile and start to read it. Until I did. And then… my word, what a book.
The sheer scale of the story is staggering, a fertile work of imagination as if the mind of the author himself had emerged from the living mud of Mordew. There was much to marvel at. Not only the vastness of the world that is created, but how that is set against the almost claustrophobic confines of the narrow world of the young protagonist, Nathan Treeves.
Nathan is a character that the reader is drawn to, feels an instinctive empathy with, and wills him along the perilous path that he must take as the narrative unfolds. In many respects, it is with Nathan that we get a real sense of the Dickensian nature of the novel. In Nathan we can see parallels with Jo the Crossing-Sweeper, that dirty, ragged, hoarse boy picking his living from the streets of London, or even a young Oliver Twist, forced to join a gang of thieves to fight for his survival. Dickens spent a great deal of time describing his young protagonists, with young Jo a vagrant, an outcast from society, with no education to elevate him from the dirt from which he derives his living. Nathan, while blessed with a mother and a father, they are all but useless to him. He too, lacks an education, lacks access to medical care. While set in a fictional city in a world entirely unfamiliar to the reader, Pheby still manages to make social justice, as Dickens had done before him, a central concern of the novel.
As a relative novice to the fantasy genre, two things were extraordinarily helpful. Firstly the dramatis personae, reminding us that the novel is as much theatre as it is a commentary on the world. This made understanding the characters of the novel that much easier. I also very much enjoyed the glossary that accompanied the novel. I referred to this throughout my reading of the book, and can confirm that it gives you sufficient information to piece together whatever parts of the book you may have mislaid along the way without containing spoilers.
With an underlying philosophy that nothing can be achieved without sacrifice, the reader fears for Nathan from the outset. The pace of the story takes the reader on a journey fraught with tension, fear, and into a darkness that is almost immersive.
This is the first volume of a trilogy. I await, with some impatience, the next instalment. It would be fair to say that this time, it will not be sitting on my TBR pile for quite so long.
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