Mordew, Alex Pheby: The Less Dead, Denise Mina

Chris Deerin is charmed by a touch of magic by a much loved writer

Fantasy fiction has an image problem. Literary beard-strokers have long taken issue with books of magyk and faeries and daemons – unserious, they say; childish; “not another fucking elf”.

The revered Kazuo Ishiguro wandered into this disputed territory with his last novel, The Buried Giant, which featured – of all things! – a dragon. What was a canonical writer like Ishiguro doing, asked his critics, lowering himself like this?

Well, The Buried Giant was great, and its dragon rocked. Then Ishiguro won the Nobel. Yah-boo to the snobs.

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Alex Pheby is similarly fresh to fantasy. A “serious” author whose last novel was based on the troubled life of James Joyce’s daughter Lucia, his Mordew is an emphatic, head-up-shoulders-back stride into the genre. Pheby isn’t doing things by half: this is the first in what promises to be a blazingly good trilogy. Well done, Galley Beggar, for having the vision to back him.

Pheby infuses the pages with a crackling, animating magic of his own

Nathan Treeves lives with his ailing parents in a freezing, wet and muddy slum. Above them, the city of Mordew rises in status and wealth until it reaches its pinnacle – the home of the enigmatic, all-powerful Master. As the story develops it becomes clear there’s more to Nathan and his parents than is first apparent. He is the inheritor of magical powers and a name that will pit him against the mighty and manipulative Master.

So far, so standard – so Tolkien, so Gormenghast. But also, so Dickens. Pheby infuses the pages with a crackling, animating magic of his own. When I say he isn’t doing things by half, I mean it. He has constructed not just a city, but a society, an economy, a system of nature, even a profound structure of philosophical belief, all explained in a large, captivating glossary at the back. God is dead, murdered, his body stored in the catacombs below Mordew; in his place, demigods like the Master rule with wanton cruelty. Charismatic, grotesque (and often genuinely funny) characters abound. There are delicious teases of the wider world that will be explored in the subsequent volumes. There are even hints of dragons. A serious book, for serious people.

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There is a spine of moral seriousness running through Denise Mina latest offering, too. The Less Dead follows adoptee Margo as she seeks to uncover the facts about her biological family. What she finds shocks the middle-class Glaswegian GP to her core – she comes from a line of drug-using prostitutes. Her birth mother, Susan, was murdered shortly after giving her up, possibly at the hands of a late-80s/early 90s serial killer. Now Margo may be in his sights.

The mystery of her mother’s killer drives the book, but its real power comes from the women. Mina has done her research and explores with empathy and sass the reasons young women take to the streets to sell their bodies, why they use drugs such as heroin to cope, and the grisly climate that fixes them in their grim situation. The book has two revelations: the identity of the killer, and the fact that these girls are often strong and brave, rather than weak.

Mordew by Alex Pheby. Galley Beggar, £14.99

The Less Dead by Denise Mina. Harvill Secker, £14.99