I can imagine this book being for someone, and, based on the positive press I’ve seen for it, those someones do exist. But I, alas, am not among them.
Firmly in the (perhaps slightly dated?) tradition of the New Weird, Mordew is a tale of weird, gross magic, following an apparently insignificant boy who rises to prominence in a surreal and vaguely Dickensian dystopia.
Imagine The Decemberists by way of David Cronenberg and you’re most of the way there. Gross-out body-horror galore, with corpses, rats, mud, sickly orphans, and ghosts every which way.
All of which I am not, in theory, opposed to, but I found this execution uncompelling at best. Mordew merely revels in its filth and gore, without any sense of what it’s really about. There is a truly astonishing lack of agency to the story: Nathan Treeves is constantly moved and manipulated by others, and when he does act on his own (often with horrifying but, more off-puttingly, horrifyingly meaningless violence), it’s with all the calculation of a sleepwalker. It’s dreamlike, indeed the perfect example of what it’s like to be told someone else’s dream: full of weird ideas and detail, oddly lacking in motivation, and deeply, deeply boring.
A lot of this novel reminded me of Miéville (without the smarts) and Pratchett (without the charm), and the larger world is kind of like a grossdark (new genre alert!) version of Le Guin’s Earthsea. Pheby clearly has his aesthetic down pat, and a few sections were quite interesting—the philosophical and verbose canine Anaximander’s disquisitions on the impact of scent on cognition were quite good—but the extent to which the novel retcons its own early chapters, combined with its utter failure to give either cultural or theological context to who God was and why we should care God’s dead, left me quite unimpressed with the final chapters.
Which, should be noted, end on a seeming cliffhanger, and all still without a convincing main character. I even entertained the idea that this is an elaborate satire of “chosen one” narratives (amidst its many intentionally unsavory smells, there’s an unfortunate whiff of Potter about Mordew)—but, at 600 pages and with “series just beginning!” in a flashing marquee at the denouement, I don’t think that lands. It is wordy, inventive, richly-detailed, covered in magical mud and guck, and I’m sure it’ll find its fans, but I was quite happy to wash my hands of it.