Alex Pheby's ongoing Cities of the Weft trilogy is a vast and absorbing gothic fantasy series in the vein of Gormenghast, with two books currently available: Mordew and its sequel, Malarkoi, weaving together dimension-hopping adventure, floating pyramids, political allegory, talking dogs, living mud and the corpse of God.
As we eagerly await the release of the final volume Waterblack from Galley Beggar later this year, we're excited to present the first in a series of 'out-takes' from Malarkoi, an alternate preface describing the Cities of the Weft - the titular settings of each book in the trilogy. Many thanks to Alex for sharing this with us...
Every city has a character; some are more distinctive than others.
This character is made up of the aesthetics of the place – its architecture and its civic design; its physical geography; the quality of its light; the beauty of its surroundings; the presence, or otherwise, of water running through it; geo-thermal vents that give a pervasive smell of egg; et al. – but not only the aesthetics.
There is also the history of it – the things that were done there; the people that lived there; what the people of other cities remember it for; the presence, or not, of notable figures of renown; et al. – but not only the history.
There is also the suffusion of magic in it – in the presence of ghosts; in the strength in numbers of its witch-women; in the looseness of the boundaries between it and the weft; in chambers containing, or not, the corpse of God; et al. – but not only the magic.
There is also the range of things that its inhabitants occupy themselves with, the food they eat, the presence of unusual or unique things that other cities do not offer, the costliness of its amenities, whether people visit the place for this or that reason, and other things important but not listed here for the sake of brevity, or the author’s forgetfulness.
In short, the character of a city is dependent on many and varied things, but that does not make it any less distinctive. One cannot be in a city for long without knowing it is the city that it is, and not, say, a neighbouring city. Some cities are more or less distinct than others, it is true, and it is acceptable to say that one city reminds one of another city, but that does not make two cities the same. Sometimes a city on one continent is very different to a city on another continent, but that does not mean that two cities on the same continent are necessarily similar to each other. Indeed, to say that a city is the Somewhere of the North, or the Somewhere of the East is a phrase that is often heard, and that is because some cities have such a unique character that local similarities are held in abeyance when comparing each to another.
Three cities of this distinctive type are Mordew, Malarkoi, and Waterblack.
Though they share a proximity – they are all located in that area the Assembly now calls NWPen, and which was previously the North-western Peninsula – they are all very different from each other. Mordew, in all its iterations, is noticeable for its circularity, which itself is a function of its magical character since it was raised up from the seabed by its Master as he stood at its centre. Magic, unchecked, acts in a sphere and a sphere on flat land, or on a map, is represented as a circle.
Malarkoi, though, is pyramidal in form, since a triangle constrains a circle, forcing its magical energy into its angles and this is the way its Mistress wanted it, because the angles of a triangle make points which are good for piercing, which is what her magic does to the material realm – making holes in it into which she directs her influence.
Waterblack lies below the water since its people – the dead – do not require air to breathe. Its shape is unknown because no one can see it down there, and if one were to swim to it in order to know its shape one would drown and thereby join the dead and so lose interest in communicating information about that shape to the living.
In any case, it would be wrong to say that because these cities are all to be found on the North-western Peninsula that they are of a type. It is more important to know that they are “cities of the weft”, which means that they are magical cities, though even then they are unalike.
Mordew is a city of relentless and remorseless alienation. It is a city whose ideal dweller is an isolated man who attends endlessly either to his Master’s wishes, or to the needs of the economic realities which drive the commerce of that city. Everyone who lives in Mordew, no matter how many share their home, lives alone – it is the kind of place where, even if one has friends and family, these persons have their own concerns, and these clash with yours. Everyone is always precariously balanced on the slopes of that city, always in danger of tumbling down into its Mud, and the precariously balanced must always help themselves first. It is the only logical way: even if one is of a charitable mind, it is impossible to distribute one’s largesse if one has fallen down into the slums.
Mordew is a city where parents sell their children; where fathers vie with mothers; where men oppress women; where friends stab each other, both figuratively and literally, in the back; where blackmail is done, and threats are made; where blind eyes are turned to suffering; where the weak are predated on by the strong; where animals find short shrift. It is a city where the supervision of a beneficent God is sorely wanting, but which has done away with him to a place where he can no longer hear prayers or punish wrongdoing.
It is easy to say that all this is because Mordew has taken on the personality of its Master. It is easy to say that, in making the city the way he made it, and placing the corpse of God below it, the Master of Mordew has determined the distinctive character of the city. It is easy, but only almost correct, since he does not now coerce the inhabitants of his place to behave the way they do. There must be collaboration from all these individuals to make the place what it is. They could just as easily make the city a place of good cheer – there are, after all, a great many cities that suffer privations, or are ruled idiosyncratically, and yet offer good cheer to a visitor. Or, on the contrary, they could make the place a scene of endless revolutionary violence, always taking to the streets to rise up against their despot, as they might see him. The Master’s quarters are high and safe and well defended – there is nothing to say he would even quash a rebellion or care one way or other how his people govern themselves.
Moreover, the Master of Mordew has greater concerns than whether his people behave in a particular way. This is because Mordew, Malarkoi, and Waterblack are regularly the focus of the Assembly’s remedial attentions in the form of the Atheistic Crusades – the Masters and Mistresses are always threatening to affect the condition of the weft on which the Assembly relies for public works in its territories. Tampering in the weft can awaken the warpling, and her tolerance for irritation is very near to zero. When the threat of her wakening exceeds the Assembly’s tolerances, it brings its considerable might to bear, and this requires all the attentions of the dominant city to rebuff, if even that is sufficient.
So, if their Master is distracted, should not the people of Mordew bear some responsibility for the things that happen within its precincts?
Malarkoi is a very different city from Mordew. It is a tetrahedral sequence of nested intermediate realms each governed by, and for, a patron god – and its people – under the aegis of the Mistress. Each realm is tied to, but is not identical to, ancestral grounds on the Island of the White Hills – the country surrounding the city – each dominated by a portal-henge that gives access to the next realm in the nest and which, should one have the patience to traverse them on foot and in the correct order – and make the necessary sacrifices – or to be granted access through the much more convenient arrangement of these in the Mistress’s golden pyramid, still requiring sacrifice – come to the Mistress’s realm, Malarkoi proper, which is almost entirely a material realm of her own making, except that within it she maintains an accessible series of bespoke infinities which she creates to the whims of her people, as a gift for their worship of her, and which are themselves nested, and often combined, intermediate realms.
These, obviously, are a very much clearer indication of her people’s characters, since they are entirely for them and modelled on their own requirements, and it would be impossible to know them all sufficiently to think of Malarkoi as a city having their character, but nonetheless, there is no other place like it. Think of a normal city where every district, every neighbourhood, every street, every dwelling, every room in every dwelling was uniquely different in its aesthetic rules to every other. This city, like Malarkoi, would be distinctive in its heterogeneity.
Such variance comes at a price, though – it requires significant alteration of the resting state of the weft, which, with the weftling dead, is like ringing a loud bell in the warpling’s ear as she sleeps, so that eventually she must awake and repair the disturbance. Should the Assembly take umbrage at the Mistress’s noisy demi-goddery and, with their machines, collapse all of these realms back into the material realm that they consider prime, then that would be a great sadness. And who knows what would happen to the denizens of those places?
Whose fault would that eventual and inevitable tragedy be? It is all very well to provide everyone with exactly what it is that they wish, but what if that is only a short-term provision? Would not someone who has been pandered to in this way come to expect it? Could they then cope without it? A slum child of Mordew is a very resilient type of person, since they have made do with almost nothing from the moment they were born, and anything they are given is gratefully received up until the day of their death. The spoiled and feckless Malarkoians sacrifice their children to make firebirds, all so that they might die themselves and live in the perfect realms the Mistress creates for them. How could they enjoy the inevitably more prosaic existence the Assembly would enforce on them, even though by any objective measure Assembly membership is a very pleasurable existence?
Whatever happened to Malarkoi the last time the Crusaders came is forgotten, but the land bears scars and anyone with even a passing familiarity with the sempiternality of Spark forms in the weft might guess at the fate of its people.
Waterblack now moulders beneath the waves awaiting the return of its Master, and so only the fish know its current character, but in previous times, though these are also largely forgotten, it had a dire reputation as the home of the unquiet and unhappy dead.
Apart from that, it was known for having many hundreds of thousands of black cats, each one as ill-omened as the last. Whether these cats drowned when Waterblack was driven beneath the waves, or whether there was sufficient magic there to allow them to live on, is a question no one has the will to answer. Nor does anyone in that area still possess the equipment or sufficient understanding of the methods of deep-sea diving that the curious would require. Nor would they return if they did, as has already been said, since to enter Waterblack is to die, the boundary stelae denoting the city limits enforcing this condition on any who pass them, and the dead have their own concerns.
In any case it seems foolish to think of cats living under water, chasing fish and washing themselves. The pictures this conjures in the mind are ridiculous and ridiculous things, in the material realm, are never so common as tragic things, and the tragic thought of many hundreds of thousands of cat corpses, bloated and rotting, consumed by crabs, gored by sword-fish, floating cadavers with patches of fur and open mouths, eyes filmed-over and dull seems much more likely than the jolly sight of a cat learning to swim, so sad and bleak is our world, and so inimical to laughter.
Yet Waterblack was the city of the dead, and when it was at the surface all manner of terrible and noisome events were normal to it, and what is in a volume of brine that can strip a place of its magic? Or of its character? And there are many places that the rising of the sea has drowned, and if only the water were taken away what would be left would be what was there before – water-damaged and silted over, but not changed in any qualitative sense – so perhaps it is the water that has changed and the dead cats go about their business as normal, the physical properties of living beneath the surface being the thing that gave way, so that the sight of cats at play, cats at their territory building, cats at their petty squabbling, those sights are the normal thing.
And there is no such creature as a water mouse – by which the author does not mean a vole, but any small sea-dwelling mammal – and perhaps this is because the cats have caught them all. Certainly, rats are reluctant to leave a sinking ship, and even when they do, they remain stubbornly at the surface, as if there are creatures below that would make of them their playthings, such as cats are wont to do.
It is not always right to believe first the thing one least wishes to be true. Indeed, to be always cynical is as efficient a way of making cynical situations come into being in the world as can be imagined. Sometimes it is necessary to meet a happy fate halfway, by imagining it is true before one has the evidence, by acting as if it is the way of things, and by so acting make it possible for a better situation to be. So perhaps Waterblack is the answer to the problems of the world. Perhaps it is a place of happy endings and wishes fulfilled, for men as much as for cats.
Whatever Waterblack is, first we must traverse Malarkoi, on whom the shadow of Mordew has long fallen. When we have been through that city we will know more of what awaits us, and will be closer to knowing the ending, happy, sad, or otherwise.