Ian Mond Reviews Malarkoi by Alex Pheby

Malarkoi, Alex Pheby (Galley Beggar Press 978-1-91311-130-4, £17.99, 550pp, hc) Sep­tember 2022.

To begin with a question: have you read Alex Pheby’s Mordew? If not, stop read­ing this review. Not just because I’m about to spoil the novel, but because Mordew is simply brilliant. If I were prone to sweeping statements, I’d describe it as the best start to a fantasy tril­ogy in the last decade. If, however, you are as ecstatic about Mordew as I am but want to know as little as possible about the sequel, Malarkoi, then all I’ll say is that the second volume in the Cities of the Weft trilogy is as inventive, playful, and surprising as its predecessor, if not more so. You’re going to love it.

As should be mandatory for all trilogies or multi-volume series, Pheby begins proceedings with a summary of the events of the previous novel: the emergence of young Nathan Treeves as a powerful god-like magic-user (or weftling) and his abrupt, unexpected death at the hands of the Master of Mordew (I grant that’s an astonishing oversimplification; Pheby does a far better job of it). The summary is followed by a Dramatis Personae and an alphabetically ordered list of the weirdness we’re about to encounter. Both these sections were delightful features of Mordew, and the novelty has not worn off with their ap­pearance in Malarkoi. If anything, they’re even cheekier and more self-referential, with Pheby foreshadowing “a dead girl, alive for no obvi­ous reason,” “various ominous glows,” or, my personal favourite, “a rebellious mouse, intent on revenge.”

With Nathan, the focus of the last novel, dead – his intensely powerful spark trapped in a magical Tinderbox to be used by the Master of Mordew, like a nuclear weapon, against the Assembly’s Eighth Atheistic Crusade – Pheby splits the narra­tive into four threads. Before doing that, though, he dedicates the opening section of Malarkoi to its Mistress: namely, the worlds she has created in her golden pyramid and the unconventional upbringing of her daughter Dashini. As such, we are introduced to multiple “heavens”, including a world populated by people with the heads of cows and a world inhabited by snakes with the heads of people. There’s also a glorious chapter where Joes, murdered by their friend Gam (an event you’re now acquainted with because you’ve read Mordew!), is afforded a heaven by the Mistress.

Returning to the four threads that comprise the bulk of Malarkoi, the first of these, under the chapter heading “Her Champion” (the “her” a reference to the Mistress, of course), is told from the perspective of the magical dog Sirius with his singular task to free Nathan’s spark – the boy he pledged his life too – from the Master’s Tinderbox. The second thread, with the title “Her Enemy”, sees the Master of Mordew, in possession of the Tinderbox, head back to his manse where, out of loneliness, he begins the intricate process of growing a new Bellows. In the chapters “Boy, Book, and Dog”, the former Bellows (now devolved back into a boy), along with his brother Adam (still bound up in a book), and the talking dog Anaximander (who remains my favourite character) follow Nathan’s mother, Clarissa Delacroix (secretive and enigmatic) to a marshy land where she seeks out a relic that will “make everything right.” Finally, the fourth thread – “Her Heir” – features Dashini (the heir in question… or is she?) and surviving gang members from the slums of Mordew, Prissy and Gam. Hunted by assassins, they arrive at the Mistress of Malarkoi’s island, where they make the difficult, heaven-hopping journey to the top of a golden pyramid and a meeting with Dashini’s god-like mother.

Not since China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station have I read a novel this wild and over­flowing with ideas, where the conventional rules of the fantasy genre do not seem to apply. It’s not so much the remarkable sections of the book told from the viewpoint of a supernatural dog who at one stage eats the flesh of a God, or the philosophical and fascinating digressions on subjects as diverse as the properties of fire and the distinction between the material and im­material realms, or shocking scenes of religious and secular violence on a world dominated by snakes with the heads of people, or multiple chapters describing the Master’s cultivation of a new Bellows, a convoluted and intricate process involving magical sigils, vats filled with chemi­cals, and realms where time moves at different speeds. No. It’s all of these elements, and so much more I haven’t touched upon, because why spoil the surprise, that makes Malarkoi such an unmitigated pleasure to read.

As I said above, I don’t typically make sweep­ing statements, and yet it’s become abundantly clear that Pheby is producing something unusual, something original, something extraordinary with this trilogy. Obviously, I’m abuzz with an­ticipation for the publication of the concluding volume. But just for the moment, it’s enough to savour in the spectacle, the wry sense of humour – the origin of the name “Malarkoi” is both hilarious and a touch of genius – and the sheer weirdness that is Malarkoi.

Ian Mond loves to talk about books. For eight years he co-hosted a book podcast, The Writer and the Critic, with Kirstyn McDermott. Recently he has revived his blog, The Hysterical Hamster, and is again posting mostly vulgar reviews on an eclectic range of literary and genre novels. You can also follow Ian on Twitter (@Mondyboy) or contact him at mondyboy74@gmail.com.

This review and more like it in the October 2022 issue of Locus.

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