The Pendragon Protocol by Philip Purser-Hallard (Book One of The Devices Trilogy) Snowbooks July 2014
Reviewed by Adrian Middleton
[First up, apologies to the author, Philip Purser-Hallard. This review, submitted in good faith to a another site that shall not be mentioned, was not used and left to languish against my wishes. I now publish this review in advance of the release of the second book in the trilogy, The Locksley Exploit (available for kindle now), which I hope to review shortly.]
King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table have long been a staple of adventure stories, and with the emergence of urban fantasy as a genre there’s been no let up. Most recently I’ve come across Maurice Broadus’ Knights of Breton Court trilogy from Angry Robot (Modern knights reimagined on the streets of Indianapolis) and Alan Fenton’s Return of Arthur cycle (a modern retelling of the Arthur myth) from the Dovecote press.
Thankfully, Purser-Hallard doesn’t let the apple fall too far from the tree.
Despite being set in the modern day, The Pendragon Protocol is a tale of the Kingdom of Logres (England to you and me), and feels more like a story set in the real world ties than many other urban fantasies whose magic lies within the dark shadows of gritty street corners. It also constrains itself to London for the most part – resisting the temptation to seek out mythic locales that might be hidden in some unchanged medieval landscape.
What matters is that the Knights of the Round Table never really went away, they simply became the Circle, a not-quite hidden service that operates alongside the modern police force, turning up and following their own very special set of procedures designed to manage and control the activities of those mythic archetypes first encountered in the Arthurian period. For me, the recognisable city of London and the comforting backdrop of the modern police procedural provide the perfect entry point for this world, setting it apart from other modern Arthuriana and standing it up alongside the more popular (and successful) urban fantasy series’ – particularly those of other former Doctor Who novelists like Ben Aaronovitch and Paul Cornell.
Perhaps the cutting-of-teeth on the literary adventures of a televisual Time Lord creates an inherent advantage for those integrating the fantastic and the mundane, but the Devices world is as well built as that of Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series, and – despite needing to acclimatise to the narrative style in the first few pages of the book – it is just as easy a read.
The story feels like a cross between urban myth and modern superhero fantasy, with a solid undercurrent that dips into the tropes of religion and folklore alike, exploring the themes and ideas that have shaped British society over the centuries.
On the one hand, there is a sense of logic to the evolution of the Circle and to the technology that it wields, reminding me a little of how the Avengers can integrate the adventures of a high-tech man in an iron suit alongside a Norse god armed with a mystic hammer. My suspension of disbelief was maintained throughout the book, which maintained its pace beyond the central watershed of the plot.
On the other hand, hidden beneath a safely linear narrative in the pursuit of the Green Knight, is the journey taken by Jory Taylor/Sir Gawain, whose methodical approach overturns and examines the moral, societal and political aspects of the Arthurian ideal with enough depth to satisfy the deeper, more intellectual reader, but in a straightforward enough manner to satisfy the action-chaser that doesn’t want to pause to consider its implications too much. It’s a hard balance to strike, but Purser-Hallar achieves it well, and left this reader both satisfied and wanting more.
If I am disappointed by anything it is not the prose, but rather the packaging – the title (both of the book and the series) and the cover fail to make this book stand out. Had I not already been a reader of Purser-Hallard’s work, I doubt I would have paid much attention on a crowded bookshelf. Yes, it name-checks the Arthurian cycle, but ‘The Devices Trilogy’ sounds decidedly steampunk, but the cover fails to shine, meaning that word of mouth is what will make the difference here. For me such word of mouth is very much deserved – The Pendragon Protocol is solid, original and imaginative, with good character construction and development which doesn’t just make me keen to see how the series continues, but to want to see it re-imagined in comics and on the big screen.