If Charles Dickens had been locked in a room, given only 20th century fantasy to read for five years, and then told to produce a novel, he would have produced Mordew. Alex Pheby is only ostensibly the author; I’m still not entirely convinced that it isn’t an elaborate misdirect, and that Dickens isn’t really scribing this series from some lich’s dungeon somewhere.
Of course, since this is so very Dickensian, you really have to be willing to lean into all the tropes. There’s the intense focus on poverty and privation. There’s sentimentality without the slightest irony. There’s that slightly gross, highly elaborate prose that’s so essentially British that the book should probably arrive wrapped in the Union Jack. Mordew progresses from outrageous squalor to include a gang of cutpurses who certainly dodge artfully, and various other characters who impose themselves as slightly exaggerated caricatures, although they’re lambasting tropes that are long-past, like the supercilious butler and the naïve innocent. It’s Oliver Twist with magic, in other words.
But unlike Oliver Twist, Nathan still has his parents—for the moment. His father is desperately ill with a disease that also made me faintly sick, his lungs full of proliferating worms. Nathan soon falls in with a gang of child thieves as he tries to earn the money for medicine, and they learn to value—and exploit—him for his unique ability. Nathan has magic, the weird and wonderful kind of magic that he can’t control, magic with truly astonishing effects. It’s not the highly systematized magic we’ve become used to in SFF. It’s wondrous.
Nathan, however, thinks of his magical ability as the Itch, a mundane and even rude fact of life. To relieve the Itch, to release the magic, he has to Scratch. I like this ordinary physicality, the way it undermines the grandiose ways magic has gotten built up in most other fantasy. Nathan can accomplish extraordinary feats without even meaning to, banishing ghosts and healing wounds, but in the end he is only scratching an itch, doing something that, for him, is ordinary and minorly relieving—sometimes. Sometimes, Scratching an Itch only makes it worse.
It is this tension that drives the philosophical drama of the book—whether it’s better to do and to know than not. Whether suffering or scars are better, the Itch or the Scratch. It’s a very interesting question, and one that Pheby considers with the utmost seriousness. Mordew is tirelessly Victorian, sometimes to a fault. It lacks the humor of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell or the slyness of the Gormenghast trilogy, which are ultimately only Victorian-inspired. Mordew, by contrast, is utterly sincere. Most SFF that relies on sincerity also relies on action to hold the reader’s attention, but the action here is a bit uneven, coming in great gulps and then receding to the slow and nuanced examination of the city again. I would be fine with the stop-start seriousness too—life is not smooth, after all—except that Nathan does not unite the quiet moments with the loud ones.
After 500-some pages, Nathan is more of a cypher than at the beginning, when at least his objective was clear. In the first pages, he only wanted to cure his father from a terrible disease. At the end, he has found the corpse of God and not even considered that the strangest of his discoveries, and yet he—and we—know so little, and Nathan asks almost no questions to alleviate this. People explain things to him or not, as they like. It’s Nathan’s seeming incuriosity, the opacity of his feelings, that make him intermittently frustrating. He’s meant to be a capital-I Innocent, but to modern sensibilities he seems dense, easily manipulated. He also seems passive, though he isn’t that either, not with his father’s life and his mother’s happiness at stake.
Though Pheby makes Nathan desperate for medicine and short-tempered with delays, the story itself meanders and winds like a cat, intent on doing exactly as it pleases and ignoring any open and obvious doors in favor of scratching at shut ones. What’s behind here? Oh, a trip to the zoo to kill time. And here? Oh, a playroom full of fantastic toys. Pheby’s imagination is prodigious, but it renders some parts of the book sloggy with scenery and side trips. It’s not that these interludes are uninteresting, it’s just that they feel like those parts in Dickens where he was so clearly getting paid by the word.
I think there may be some additional dismay that will arise from the contrast between the dust jacket description and the actual book. This happens sometimes, and I can’t think of a better solution than simply calling attention to it. Book descriptions, written by marketing people, are necessarily concise and snappy. God is dead! the jacket declares. The book doesn’t address this fact for nearly 400 pages, though. Nathan is discovering his destiny! say the doubtless very nice and effective marketing people. The actual prose, however, mostly features Nathan understanding very little and falling into and out of circumstances far beyond his control. That makes sense for the story—after all, he’s barely a teenager and he was raised in such poverty that he can neither read nor write nor bathe regularly. How can we expect him to leap to greatness?
You will have a better reading experience if you take the book for what it is, rather than dwelling on the friction between novel prose and marketing prose. Nathan’s story, when taken on its own terms, really subverted my expectations in some delightful ways. Fantasy can particularly tropey, and so it’s always nice when authors demonstrate that they understand the tropes but refuse to be bound by them. The dichotomy between the Master and the Mistress, for example, painted in such luridly moral terms—the Mistress bad, the Master good, the Mistress wild, the Master civilized—begs from the first pages to be undercut or entirely turned on its head. Pheby subverts our expectations here, too. I won’t reveal too much except to say that it’s not a 180° reversal. It’s at once more grim and more delightful than that.
Pheby isn’t going for the twist, though. We aren’t meant to be shocked when the Master turns out to be as rotten as the city he rules, or when Nathan defies him. Everything follows a natural progression It’s strange reading a book that isn’t trying to trick its audience or prove its cleverness. It’s so smart it doesn’t need to prove anything, and so devoted to its style that it doesn’t care if you’re not a Dickens fan or a Victorian enthusiast. This, more than any other book I’ve read this year, is the book that it is. It makes neither concession nor apology. And whether I was occasionally frustrated or enthralled at length (and I was both), for the sheer moxie to write a book like this I have nothing but the tip of my hat.