Quick Review: Mordew by Alex Pheby

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.


Oh shoot, I forgot I had a blog for a minute there! Well, the nice thing about not updating for a while is that it engenders the illusion that I’ve a lot going on…

Alison and I and the dogs went out West for a minute: sabbatical hiking in Oregon. Amazing trip, lots of adventures, kind of surreal to move through so many different landscapes and then back to Chicago.

Baked the whole time I was out there, and then returned to Chicago to find that our oven had mysteriously broken while we were away. Insert Edvard Munch Scream emoji, etc. Just got it fixed!

I’ve been keeping busy with various writing and editing projects: lots of good stuff going on at the Ancillary Review of Books. Lots of reading and some reviews, I’ll have to do a separate post on some of my favorites of the last few months. And, very excitingly, my talk for the Anglia Ruskin Centre’s conference on science fiction and migration went very well; lovely conference and lots of good conversations.

Big news: I’m heading back to the retail world, and not coffee (insert Edvard Munch Scream emoji)! City Lit Books is reopening its doors in one week, and I’m gonna be behind the counter pushing speculative fiction on the good burghers of Logan Square.

That’s it for now, more soon!

Hugo Nominating Season!

Meant to post this earlier—Capricon was loads of fun, and then I got kinda busy immediately after. Among other great panels, I was on a lovely one about nominating for the Hugos, and wanted to round up some of my recommendations. On the panel, we talked a bit about what the Hugo “means”, and how personally evaluate what to nominate; for me, it’s kind of a three-way balance of how much I personally liked a work, how well crafted it seemed, and how it’s moving the conversation somehow.

I love nomination season—more important to me than the awards themselves, actually, because it allows me to fill in my reading list and find worthwhile stuff that I’ve missed. That’s especially true for short fiction, which I genuinely love, but have a hard time keeping up with through the year. Continue reading

Capricon Schedule

Starting tomorrow, I’ll be talking on some panels at Capricon, one of Chicago’s local science fiction conventions. It’s all virtual this year, so even easier than usual to get to! Check out the whole schedule, there’s a lot of great talks from great folks. Also, while the con would love your support if you’re able, they’re offering free & reduced memberships in acknowledgment that a lot of people are struggling right now.

If you’re looking for me for some reason:

Thursday, Feb. 4
7pm: “We’re All Made of Meat…Until We’re Not”
Cyberpunk panel, I’ll be alternately praising stuff I love and gnashing my teeth about the emptiness of the aesthetic.

Saturday, Feb. 6
10am: “Solarpunk Now & Future, Solarpunk International”
Solarpunk’s kind of weird because I’m like…skeptical it exists qua category, but I really love it as a theme. Looking forward to this and hoping we talk about a good list of works/authors to check out.

3pm: “Hugo Awards Nominating”
I think we’re going to talk briefly about the mechanics (we should all be doing more ranked-choice voting, folks), probably a bit about “what does the Hugo mean” that I’m interested in, and then diving in to WHAT WE LOVED from 2020. Crap year but a lotta good books, 2020.

Sunday, Feb. 7
12pm: “Hopeful Science Fiction About Less Miserable Futures”
Moderating this one, really looking forward to the discussion (and hopefully a big watch/read list by the end).

2pm: “If You Space Opera, They Will Come”
This should be fun, talking about classics and what’s going on with all the new great space opera.

Natural January

Started out this year with two naturals, which I don’t usually seek out much anymore, but these were pretty nice. A Salvadoran Gesha from Olympia Coffee, and an Ethiopian from Four Letter Word.  First time I’ve heard of the “74110” heirloom and the work JARC is doing.

Both of these were surprisingly mild; the gesha natural particularly. I love that a lot of natural coffees you get these days are so clean, without the often-off-putting funk. It makes them a lot more sessionable, more reasonable “morning cuppa” selections, but I also kind of want them to be more aggressive.

It’s slow to fruition, but I do really like how the big success of certain cultivars is getting promoted enough that consumers can start noticing that aspect more. Particularly with rockstars like gesha & SL-28, it’s interesting to be able to wonder about terroir & processing impact, as more countries grow and more companies promote them.

Warenaw AA – Wendelboe

A very nice Kenyan coffee from Tim Wendelboe. Finished this up last week; it was definitely a bit past roast and a bit past fresh crop. Tasting notes are right on; anytime I get blackberry/blackcurrant out of an SL-28 I call that a win. Quite sweet, rather flat, mild but enjoyable over all.

Missing those intense blackberry & tomato-stem SL-28s, haven’t had one of those in a while. I am very optimistic about the Ruiru 11 blends I’ve tasted the last few years.

2020 Fiction Reads & Re-Reads

Oh yeah, it’s time to do one of these.  I decided to do my wrap-up here on my personal blog this year; you can see 2019 & 2018 on Positron. Probably some older ones buried in there too.

In theory, I should have read & written a lot more in 2020 than usual for me; but, as so many of us are acknowledging, it turns out that free time that’s directly connected to global pandemics, in the shadow of fascism and climate apocalypse, is not actually the best, most productive kind of free time. It took me until the early part of the fall to recover something like some good reading patterns—even though I wasn’t working an often emotionally/physically draining 50ish hours a week, I also didn’t have the rigorous schedules and windows of reading opportunities that enforced.

But! Still a great year for books, a great year for reading. Some really quick thoughts on my list this year: Continue reading

Link Roundup 12/29/20


Trying to commit to blogging more often, and gonna cheat with some of these! I spend way too much time doom-scrolling, here’s some of the most interesting things from the last week or so:

  • Of Death Stars, Sarlaccs and Sexting: The Curious Sexual Energy of “Star Wars” by Darren Mooney
    Really interesting, in-depth analysis on the uneven, important horniness of the Guerres des Étoiles.
  • Bookmark’s Most Scathing Reviews of 2020
    Pans are not great…unless they’re deserved. Cathartic excerpts from acerbic reviews.
  • Twitter thread about a literary romance discovered in marginalia.
    I choked up in this one, ngl.
  • Maybe the best/most comprehensive treatment of “is a hotdog a sandwich” I have yet encountered.
    If you haven’t run into this silly question yet, it’s actually a really good entry into some heavy philosophical/linguistic categorizing stuff.
  • What the Hole Is Going On? The very real, totally bizarre bucatini shortage of 2020 by Rachel Handler
    I was howling through this. Comedic gold, and a thorough bit of journalism. Handler needs a Steadman-esque illustrator.
  • Colonial Hottie: Gal Gadot, Wonder Woman and Brand Israel by Sean Guynes
    I have been, mostly accidentally, reading a lot about Wonder Woman 1984 this week (it sounds horrifically bad!), and someone re-upped Guynes’ excellent, deep-diving article from the last one. The curiously complex (and colonially complicated) evolution of the Hot Jew; how you can’t really separate Wonder Woman from the occupation of Palestine.
  • The restaurant equity revolution will not be Instagrammed by Soleil Ho
    Dang this is a great piece. The social justice movements that came into focus and power this pandemic year affected restaurants, bars, and cafes; this article digs into how far movements towards progress actually got. Really good reporting; there’s important, necessary change in the air, but it hasn’t landed yet, and I’ve spent a lot of this not-in-a-cafe year thinking about it.
  • Life Beyond Markets, an interview with Mike Konczal
    I really need to pick up Konczal’s Freedom from the Market, sounds like. This is a great interview; I love the idea of connecting radical economic reform to an American tradition—not out of any rah-rah patriotism, but because I think that America has an actual radical history that can be picked up and expanded on; where we can reclaim these kinds of traditions, we can defang the jingoists who decry all changes they don’t like as “Un-American”. Reading this made me think of utopian leanings in SF, like Kim Stanley Robinson’s, where you can acknowledge that markets are a technology that is really good at some things, you just definitely don’t want it in charge of everything.
  • The Story I Like To Tell About My Father by Charlie Jane Anders
    Just a brilliant, moving essay by one of our best SF writers.

And finally:

  • The Holotypic Occlupanid Research Group : A Database of Synthetic Taxonomy
    Inject it straight into my veins, as the kids say. There are things that are so specifically my jam that I get a kind of solipsistic paranoia upon encountering them for the first time. Nightvale was like that for me. I’m still mad I haven’t made it to the Mmuseumm. I miss getting to NYC regularly, and I know that I will *probably* try to identify the next occlupanid I run into.

My Go-To Rye


This year included far more baking than I had anticipated. This rye has become a staple for our house; I almost always have a bit around. I kind of cobbled together and adjusted the recipe out of a few different ones. I really love this bread because it’s really forgiving and flexible on the prep side, keeps incredibly well once baked, and is really flavorful/versatile for meals and snacks. Continue reading