Thumb Drives and Oven Clocks: Issue 14
TDAOC: Issue 14
Mordew by Alex Pheby
The Passenger by Cormac McCarthy
The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan
I would like someone to give me a pile of money to write at length about Mordew by Alex Pheby. It's not that I need the money; I'd donate it. It's that I need the justification to push aside all the other books I need to read next so I can indulge in a second pass through Mordew, peeling it apart the whole way through, in an attempt to figure out how and why it worked so well.
And yet—that may not be the way. Mordew reminds me what is possible in fiction, and that what is possible in fiction is anything, and more than anything, this book made me want to write like this. To write like the only real rules are the ones I create. When you stand on the shores of potential, perhaps the only path to comprehension is through the foam.
I've seen Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast books bandied about as a reference point, which I get, but also that's not quite it, or not entirely it. Where the Gormenghast saga moves slowly (until it doesn't), where those stories are largely about timelessness and tradition, Mordew moves. It is energetic, about energy. It charges; it crackles. By the end of the book it cracks itself open so many ways over it's only fitting that it ends with a final act of compaction that itself represents a beginning.
Both books do have me thinking about rules. Both involve worlds where rules matter, deeply; the difference being that where the rules of Gormenghast are those of social friction, constraint and conformity, resistance, the rules of the world of Mordew are explosive, complex and unknowable. Magic is a real presence in this world, and every way Nathan, our main character, turns, the rules thwart his progress, afford him to be used, dictate possibility while blinding him to his ability to take advantage of his own abilities. Nathan's a chosen one, for sure, but, as Ian Mond puts it in his review in Locus: "[M]aybe the most significant difference, when compared to the conventional Chosen One arc, is that Nathan never truly enjoys a moment of agency."
How much the book does that's new or not is something I'd love to examine more closely; what took my breath away reading it, though, was its creative energy, its sheer force of will. In his review in The Guardian, Adam Roberts contextualizes it against other modern fantasy stories: "It seems that one way to take an apparently exhausted idiom and make it new is just to push through, with enough imaginative energy to refresh the tired old tropes."
There’s delightful element of formal play, too. Glossaries full of made-up terminology at the back of a fantasy or science fiction book are de rigueur; the one in Mordew, though, is 100 pages long, which Pheby warns the reader away from reading, as it contains information unknowable to Nathan. I haven't read all of it, but what I did sample brims with context the story can't itself offer, raising more questions than it answers. And then there's the list of things you'll find in the novel, printed at the front of the novel, a catalog of wonders and horrors. It feels impossible for one book to contain all this stuff, and yet, yep. It's all in there.
Mordew is the first of an in-the-works trilogy. The second book reaches the U.S. in October 2023, and I've never been so tempted to refinance the mortgage so I can order a single book from across the ocean. If Pheby can maintain the pitch and flow of Mordew across books two and three, the sequence will stagger, tower. I learned about this book via a short reference from Marlon James in an interview for Elle magazine in which he refers to it as the future of fantasy—which means something, coming from someone who is himself also writing the future of fantasy—and it's hard not to imagine it as a significant touchpoint for years to come.
In short: Mordew was one of my two favorite reading experiences of 2022, full stop.
After following up Mordew with Gold Diggers—which, as I alluded to in the previous issue, was the sacrificial lamb led to the slaughter of being literally whatever unfortunate thing I had to read after Mordew—I picked up The Passenger by Cormac McCarthy. I was oddly excited for this book, and yet, looking back on it now…I don't feel let down, but I do feel like it's not exactly a compliment to say that only Cormac McCarthy could have written this book? By which I mean that no editor was going to tell Cormac McCarthy that he couldn't write this book. Even though the rules of narrative are mostly built on sand, if you're going to break them, I think you need to build a better castle than this.
To back up: it really is odd that I was so interested in this book. The first book of his I read was All the Pretty Horses, which I do not recall much caring for. Then of course years later I read The Road and it knocked me over. I only really came around on No Country for Old Men, which I'd read before I'd read The Road, after I read The Road, which helped unlock No Country for me. Then a couple years ago I finally read Blood Meridian, which I found to be a particularly tough piece of steak. Meat, sure, but gristly.
Still, he's of a bit of a fading breed of a certain kind of writer, and while I'll be among the last to blame you if you're not interested in seeing where one of those last-standing 20th century white kinda-manly male writers goes next…I kind of am? And I’m sorry? Turns out McCarthy goes pretty much where you might expect a guy to go who spent a lot of time hanging out at nerdy think-tanks.
Sure, I did enjoy the book, quite a bit, actually; it's meandering and philosophical while cosplaying as a paranoid 70s-era government thriller, I think. It has the feel of a novel ghost-written for Thomas Pynchon by Cormac McCarthy while Neal Stephenson [joke redacted; ed. note: "a bit too much"] with a quill. It's also got this whole "hey, I'm gonna try to write an actual lady character" thing going on, which is cool, though, maybe it's not the best look to have that one character be a mentally unsound individual whose suicide on page one is a driving motivator of the male character's actions? But gods bless him for taking the big swing here. (Or maybe that's a reductive feminism 101 take, on my part. Not sure.)
So from a certain angle the book is an intricate double-helix, a family saga (an uncomfortably weird family saga) entwined with an atomic-age epic. With lots of hallucinations. It is rarely uninteresting.
But the book also introduces a huge plot in the opening hundred pages which it soon after grows bored with and drops like yesterday's TikTok trend. I love character and mood and meandering philosophical stuff as much as the next aging English major but I also really do love well-executed plot—hey, got a second, let me tell you about a little book called Mordew, you may have heard of it, I dunno, probably from someone real cool with great taste in books?—and you just can't introduce a plot that has me all but screaming "Cormac McCarthy wrote an episode of Fringe!" at everyone in earshot—which, last I checked, was mostly E., who is terribly patient when I get shouty, and my two small children, who I love but who are absolutely useless to me when it comes to discussing Cormac McCarthy novels—and then not do anything with it. I forbid it. Unless, I guess, your name is Cormac McCarthy, and your editor is there to say "Yes, I like money" when you hand over some pages.
To be clear, I'm sure I'm being reductive in multiple ways. It’s the end of the year and I’m full of pastry and I want this issue done. But the impact of this kind of bait-and-switch is real, and it makes it a tough book to recommend people read.
As of right now I've had the follow-up, Stella Maris, waiting for me on the holds shelf at Mac's Backs for several weeks, and while I still have every intention of reading it, I'm less excited for it. I've read just enough about it to guess it's maybe not going to address my concerns about the first book.
After all of the above, it was time for low-stakes escapism. So I picked up The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan.
Here are some fun facts about The Eye of the World:
It's the first book in Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time fantasy series.
It was the least fun I've had with a book in years.
The Wheel of Time series, if you don't know, I believe has a sort of ur-text reputation when it comes to modern high fantasy, to such a degree that when I finally started reading this book, I was shocked to learn the series only started coming out in 1990. I sincerely believed it had launched in the 70s, during whatever second- or third-wave post-Tolkien thing was going on back then.
Having heard about these books for actual literal decades now, though, having heard about this series as it was being published, this series which infamously hits some kind of truly notorious dead-stop mind-numbing slog around book eight, this series which only finally ended after 14 books, almost exactly ten years ago, after Jordan passed away and Brandon Sanderson stepped in to write the final three books for him—I long ago said to these books: no no no. No. No thank you.
And yet. I don't know. The commercials for the Amazon show looked kind of cool? Next thing you know I'm a hundred pages into the first book and i am a wrecked man wandering around his house, once again shouting at his family: "How did I get to the slog so fast? How? HOW? Do I even like reading? Did I ever like reading? I don't think I like reading anymore!"
This book should have been tasty cake. I expected, at worst, to feel like I felt when I was reading The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks earlier this year, like I was engaging in a light and mildly pleasing distraction from my every-day concerns and cares. It should have taken me, a terribly slow reader, seven to ten days, tops, to plough through.
Nope: 84 years.
There are 13 more books in this series.
And this wasn't even supposed to be the slow part.
On the surface, this should have checked all sorts of little happy boxes for me—immersive world, ancient timeline, grand adventures, gradual expansion of scope. But every chapter left me feeling like I could have put the book down and walked away, never to pick it up again.
The problem is that so many people love these books; the problem is I wonder if this makes me the jerk; the problem, here, of course, is that I don't think I am. At least, not intentionally.
I'm still coming to fantasy all wrong. This is one of those series that I suspect you read when you grew up reading fantasy, at a time when fantasy was basically Tolkien and then this, and so of course you were going to love this. Maybe I would have, too, once upon a time, but no: I'm cursed to live in the era of Alex Pheby and Marlon James, remolding fantasy through creative traditions into expressive, progressive shapes. Sure, we couldn't get to those later books without going through these earlier books. And yet. Maybe I don't have to go through these books, myself?
And yet: I've read that the second book turns a bit, gets less paint-by-numbers Tolkien, that maybe I just haven't gotten to the good parts yet, that the first three, taken together, represent something almost resembling a stand-alone trilogy. I have a pointless tendency toward completionism, and part of me really wants to see what the hype is about. But, I mean. Do I?
Happy holidays, happy new year, oh god I am so full of pastry.
I did actually almost make it to a thousand words during NaNoWriMo this year almost solely because of Mordew, because it reminded me that you can do literally anything in fiction if you do it well enough. I didn't do it well—those thousand words are terrible. But they're more words than I've written in over a decade.
There's more books I've read since these three. I won't get to them before the year's out. I'm assuming you aren't going to be sitting around on New Year's Eve waiting for me to complete this whole "write about every book I read for at least an entire year, at least" project. Unless of course you as well have extremely bizarre completionism tics. My apologies.
Unbelievably, to me, at least, I want to keep this thing we’ve got here going. Some of y'all have said nice things along the way, and I try to keep those nice things in mind when I fall back on my dark thoughts about how absolutely meaningless and inconsequential this little project is in the scope of, you know, the literary world at large, and, like, the empty expanse of the universe at larger. So I guess if you're a huge jerk, and you've been here solely so you can await my failure so you can point and laugh, you can blame the nice people to your left and right for convincing me to not quit just yet.
A note: I'm thinking about moving this newsletter from TinyLetter over to Substack. (TInyLetter is owned by Intuit, as noted in an earlier issue, while Substack is, as best I can tell, just owned by a couple dudes and the general concept of money itself, which is simultaneously both more and less horrifying to me, Captain Principles About Some Weird Stuff.) In part it's because Substack feels like a better platform for discoverability, like the kind of place where I might attract at least one or two more delightful strangers in to my orbit once or twice a year. In part it's because I feel like I'm making so many contrarian choices in my online life that I kind of just want to give in to the tides of history on at least one of them. But honestly mostly it's because I, a web professional person, have grown to lightly dislike the TinyLetter interface, which feels like it got stuck eight years ago, and it's been running on fumes ever since. (Because, I think, it literally has. One day it's going to just stop working, and, the dude with the password's going to be on vacation or in space or something, and, well, that's going to be that.) Not that I use the interface for anything more than the final send, but still, that final send is kind of an important step. Anyway, if this is the kind of thing that might bother you, please reply.
Actually, I thought about taking this whole thing back to its blog roots, because blogging is good and not dead, with the thought that then I could post random thoughts more often and more coherent reviews book by book instead of in this format, but, I don't know, something about the finality of having a full thing that gets sent has helped motivate me more than once to actually put out more than a few of these issues. It's weird. I do miss the blog, though.
Rebecca was my other top reading experience of the year, of course. Could I, given enough money, find a way to link the two books? Only someone with more money than sense can convince me to find out!