Friday 7 January 2011

Review: Mortlock - Jon Mayhew

Reposting a review originally done for (and therefore the book was provided to me by the publishers in exchange for a fair and honest review) as Mortlock was released in paperback this week in the UK.

Abyssinia, 1820. Three Englishmen search for the Amarant, a mythical flower with the power over life and death, in a strange desert oasis. On finding the flower surrounded by decaying faces, they realize that it is cursed, and take a blood oath never to remove it.

London, 1854. 13 year old knife thrower Josie performs with her guardian the Great Cardamom, an especially gifted magician who we quickly learn is Chrimes, the coward of the original three Englishmen. Their relatively peaceful existence is shattered when three macabre Aunts (note the capital letter, never a good sign…) descend on them, and Cardamom instructs Josie, with his dying breath, to find the twin brother he'd never told her about and destroy the Amarant.

From there, it's a relatively straightforward jaunt to find her twin brother – working as an undertaker's mute, and with a rather spooky, if somewhat limited, power over the dead, and to vow that they'll destroy the mythical Amarant. That's where the fun really begins, as we follow their quest to do so, chased by the Aunts – really werebird-like creatures known as Ghuls – and aided by the usual ragtag collection of helpers found in most fantasy novels of this type.

For about ninety per cent of its length, this book, especially for a debut effort, is really rather stunning. It's brilliantly paced, Josie is a very likeable heroine, and her relationship with her brother Alfie – who she initially regards as little more than an annoyance – develops believably and sweetly as they are forced to rely on each other. The villains – those gruesome Aunts and their master Lord Corvis – are also excellent, and wouldn't look out of place in a Roald Dahl story. Memorable locations include the villains' stronghold, a bizarre circus, and a mysterious graveyard. Add to that the amazing atmosphere, helped by the insertion of old English ballads such as Salisbury Plain and The Cruel Brother in between chapters, and you have a surefire winner.

And yet… as I said, nine tenths of it is superb, and the book as a whole is well worth reading and a definite recommendation – but the long-awaited climax is, to put it bluntly, rather anti-climatic. The stage is set in the aforementioned graveyard for a massive confrontation between heroes and villains, and with remarkable suddenness, it ends. A slight disappointment there, but despite finishing on a somewhat low note, for me, with the abruptness of that finale, I really should stress that the book's good points far outweigh the bad, and I'll be eagerly awaiting the next book by Jon Mayhew which is out in a few months.

High recommendation for fans of Philip Pullman, Roald Dahl, and people who like the macabre.

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