(Ob. disclaimer before I start — I know Philip Purser-Hallard, he’s an internet friend, and he’s commissioned me to write for an anthology he’s editing. However, I got to know him because he’s a favourite writer of mine, not the other way round, so I don’t think my judgement of his work is biased.)
Don’t judge a book by its cover. Or, at least, judge it by a very small part of the cover.
The Pendragon Protocol’s cover design looks like a “dad book” — the top of the book is a Union Jack, fading into a sword on top of some esoteric symbols, with a London cityscape underneath and the title written on top in runic-looking lettering. Looking at just the cover art, this looks like equal parts Dan Brown and Sven Hassel, with a little bit of Michael Dobbs or Jeffrey Archer thrown in. It’s the kind of cover art that instantly says “not for you” to me, and likely to many of the readers of my blog.
And indeed this is a book about a high-tech secret government department hiding secrets dating back millennia and fighting neo-Nazis, eco-terrorists, and serial killers at home and in Iraq, so anyone who bought the book on the strength of the cover art is not being misled.
Similarly, the blurb on the front talks about the book putting urban fantasy back where it belongs — and the book is, indeed, about the adventures of the Knights of the Round Table, updated and set in contemporary London, so I suppose it is urban fantasy.
But the part of the cover by which you should pay attention to is the part which says “Philip Purser-Hallard”, because Philip Purser-Hallard is one of the two or three best science fiction and fantasy writers in the world today, and the only reason he’s not widely regarded as such is that all his published work so far has been in spin-offs of media licensed properties, usually published by small publishers for niche audiences. This is his first novel to be entirely outside other people’s continuities (though his work within those continuities has tended to involve him creating his own semi-detached areas anyway) and one hopes it will bring him to a far wider audience than his work has so far reached. Certainly it deserves to.
In this book, which is the first of a planned trilogy, but thankfully works perfectly well read alone, Purser-Hallard introduces the Circle, a covert-ish law enforcement body whose higher-ranking members take the insignia of the Knights of the Round Table, and by doing so gain near-magical powers (though everything in the book stays just this side of physical possibility). It’s explained that they don’t gain any supernatural abilities, just a clarity of focus and purpose, and a psychosomatic growth in strength and dexterity, which comes from letting these living ideas into their heads.
Part-meme, part-archetype, part-loa, the Devices let the people whose minds they live in perform feats which otherwise could only be performed by legendary figures, but they also affect the personality of their hosts, causing them to be drawn to re-enact elements of their originals’ stories, almost without realising it — and it’s not just people on the side of the law who have Devices. For every Gawain or Lancelot there’s a Green Knight or Mordred. But nobody is the villain in their own story…
While on the surface, then, this is a fantasy-cum-police-procedural-cum-conspiracy-thriller, it is in fact a novel of ideas, and a novel about ideas, in the most literal sense — about how ideologies shape us, about order and chaos, about storytelling and narratives, about Britain and the visions people have of it, about how winners write history, about class, the folk process, and about the very concept or authority.
In other words, once again Philip Purser-Hallard has, as he so often does, written a book that pushes so many of my intellectual buttons that it feels like reading a book I’ve written for myself — if, you know, I was a much, much better writer than I am. This is a book I’m going to be pushing people to read.
But it’s not a heavy, hard-going, book either. It’s a very straightforward, linear, exciting narrative full of swordfights, jokes, and hidden secret fortresses disguised as office buildings. It’s a book that’s pure story — the kind of thing people describe as a page-turner — and even for people who don’t care about the ideas, it has a lot to offer just in terms of keeping you reading to see what happens next. I can’t describe much of the plot without giving away a major revelation that comes at the half-way point (one I inadvertantly spoiled for myself by flicking to the back and looking at the list of sources in the acknowledgements, so don’t do that), but just as this is worth reading for those who want to be made to think, it has just as much to offer for those who prefer their books to feel like an action movie.
It’s not my favourite thing Purser-Hallard’s done — that would be either his wonderful short story De Umbris Idearum or his note-perfect Olaf Stapeldon pastiche in Peculiar Lives — but it’s by far his most accessible work, and the best in terms of pure storytelling. I can’t wait for books two and three in the series.
You can find out more about the Devices Trilogy at the series’ website.