Mortlock

Mortlock

Mortlock was first published in 2010 and was the debut novel of Jon Mayhew. It was the first of The Mortlock Books and was followed by The Demon Collector (2011) and The Bonehill Curse (2012). Although all three novels share a setting and some background characters, they are stand-alone stories and can therefore be enjoyed in any order.

In 1820, three men – Edwin Chrimes, Thurlough Corvis and Sebastian Mortlock – journeyed deep into the jungles of Abyssinia in search of the Amarant, a legendary flower which was rumoured to have power over life and death. Although they succeed in finding the plant, they realise that using it would come at a horrible price and swear an oath that none of them will ever take it for themselves.

Thirty-four years passed and Chrimes has since made a living for himself as a stage magician under the name of the Great Cardamom. He has also become the guardian of an orphan named Josie, who acts as his knife-throwing assistant. The two of them live in relative comfort until one evening when three women, claiming to be Chrimes’s Aunts, appear on his doorstep.

As Chrimes is suddenly taken ill, Josie comes to realise that the Aunts are not all that they seem. There is something unnatural about them and they are fixated on retrieving the Amarant for their master. As Chrimes finally succumbs to his illness, he manages to impart a final request on Josie. To unite with her twin brother – a boy that she never knew existed – and destroy the Amarant forever.

Firstly, it’s time for my usual horror disclaimer. This book is very dark and gory in places. I feel that I really should emphasise this for the sake of this review, as the author’s website states that this novel is intended for ages 8 and up. Personally, I disagree with this rating. It is far too violent for a middle grader, as it contains putrefying corpses, descriptions of Victorian funeral practices and one occurrence of a man’s stomach being torn out by a demonic crow. A horror loving young teen would eat this up but I would advise that parents read this book through themselves before giving it to anyone younger as it is really rather frightening in places.

I am struggling to decide whether or not I enjoyed Mortlock, as I have not felt so divided over a novel for a quite a while. On the one hand, I really do like the atmosphere that it presents. I am a huge fan of Gothic novels and love the way that Mayhew describes Victorian London. Rather than presenting the typical Mary Poppins view of the city which is common to children’s literature, he shows London’s ugly heart. The city is over-crowded, smelly and dirty, with expensive shops neighbouring seedy backstreet emporiums.

The story is also surprisingly complex, gradually adding layers to the mystery. I won’t go too far into the plot in this review because I don’t want to spoil anything but it did escalated well, with early threads coming together to a neat conclusion. The main problem I had with this novel was that the pacing really was all over the place. While the prologue did not capture my interest, the opening few chapters were fast paced and quickly drew me in. However, as soon as Josie was reunited with her brother, Alfie, the plot slowed to a crawl and really did not recover.

That’s not to say that the story did not have its fair share of exciting moments. There is a dizzying escape through the streets of London towards the middle of the novel and a thoroughly creepy encounter with a cursed circus. The problem is, between these interesting set pieces are huge sections of the novel where nothing happens. The plot does not advance – although people approach and sometimes threaten Josie and Alfie for their knowledge about the Amarant, the fact that they do not know anything means that this does nothing to further the story. They just get caught in an endless cycle of ignorance until someone finally throws them a bone in the final act.

The climax also has its problems. The story takes well over 300 pages to build to a finale which wraps everything up in the space of 30 pages. This felt like a Hell of a lot of build up for nothing. I noted earlier that the plot does wrap up all of the loose ends. While this is true, it just did not satisfy me. I’m not sure if it was because I had already sussed out many of the twists or because neither Josie nor Alfie had much of a role to play in the climax, but I just did not feel invested in the ending. Even though everything was resolved, I felt as though something was lacking.

I think that, in part, this was because the protagonists were somewhat lacking in spirit. Although most of the story was told from Josie’s point of view, I never really got a feel for her as a character. She was very brave in the face of danger but she rarely seemed to succeed on her own merit. Victories always seemed to come for her in the form of coincidence – other people just being in the right place at the right time to help her out.

Her relationship with Alfie also did not really work for me. Their first meeting goes very badly as Alfie greets her with all the warmth of a sociopath but after this they just hit it straight off. For me, it just felt unrealistic. I know that this is an odd critique to make of a book that also contained demons and the walking dead but it just felt too easy for them to go from enemies to best friends without any conflict. Alfie’s character was also pretty lifeless. Although he was dressed up with a little cockney charm, he did not make much of an impression and even his powers faded from use after the halfway point of the novel.

However, to give credit where credit is due, I did rather like the three adult characters in the story. Chrimes, Corvis and Mortlock all had very different motivations for wanting the Amarant, ranging from world domination to selfishness, and I found these different ideologies fascinating. The three of them encompass a variety of human vices, their hidden desires laid bare by their obsession over the flower. It’s kind of a shame that more focus was not given to them over the story as they were a lot more interesting than Josie and Alfie. I also really loved the Aunts purely because they were just so wonderfully grotesque. Whenever they appeared I just knew that something horrible would follow and, as a lifelong horror lover, I just found this irresistible.

Anyhow, I’ve not got a lot to say about this one so I guess I’ll wrap up. While Mortlock is a very complex and atmospheric novel, it suffers from some major issues in pacing and characterisation. The middle section of the novel is very slow and takes too long to build to a remarkably short climax while the protagonists are a bit flat and forgettable. The novel is also shocking violent for a middle grade story and I really would advise parental caution if you’re considering buying this novel for anyone under the age of twelve.

Mortlock can be purchased as a Paperback and eBook on Amazon.co.uk

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© Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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